By MARK WILLIAMS (The Associated Press)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Jan. 8) - Dave Thomas, the portly pitchman whose homespun ads built Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers into one of the world's most successful fast-food enterprises, has died. He was 69.
Thomas died around midnight at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the company said Tuesday. The cause of death was not given. Thomas had been undergoing kidney dialysis since early 2001 and had quadruple heart bypass surgery in December 1996.
Company officials were meeting at Wendy's headquarters in the Columbus suburb of Dublin and planned an announcement later Tuesday. The founder and senior chairman of Wendy's International became a household name when he began pitching his burgers and fries in television commercials in 1989. The smiling Thomas, always wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, touted the virtues of fast-food in humorous ads, sometimes featuring stars such as bluesman B.B. King and soap opera queen Susan Lucci. "As long as it works, I'll continue to do the commercials," Thomas said in a 1991 interview. "When it's not working any longer, then I'm history."
But burgers weren't his first love. Thomas, who was adopted as an infant, became a national advocate for adoption. He created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a not-for-profit organization focused on raising public awareness of adoption. The profits from his books, "Dave's Way" and "Well Done!" go to the foundation. He once testified before a Congressional committee about the importance of creating incentives for adoption. "I know firsthand how important it is for every child to have a home and loving family," he testified. "Without a family, I would not be where I am today."
Born July 2, 1932, Thomas was 12 when he got his first job - delivering groceries in Knoxville, Tenn. He joined the restaurant business in the 1950s. While working at a barbecue restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., he met KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders, who became a major influence.
Thomas came to Columbus in 1962 to take over four failing KFC restaurants for his boss, who promised Thomas a 45 percent stake in them if he turned them around. Sanders sold the restaurants back to KFC for $1.5 million in 1968, making Thomas a millionaire at 35. He opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus a year later. He named the restaurant after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, nicknamed Wendy by her siblings. The chain grew to 4,800 restaurants in the United States and 34 countries by 1996. That year, Wendy's acquired the 1,200-store, Canadian-based Tim Hortons chain of coffee and fresh-baked goods.
Thomas was a forgiving businessman. The city of Philadelphia in 1994 wanted to fine Wendy's $98,400, claiming the restaurant was selling quarter-pounders that were up to a quarter of an ounce short. The city later announced it made an error and withdrew the fine. "I understand what happened," said Thomas, who visited the city shortly after the controversy. "Things happen. Mistakes happen. As far as we're concerned, we just want to go to the future. A bright future."
He tried to retire in 1982, but came back in 1989. "They took the focus off the consumer," he said of the executives who took over the company.
It was the TV commercials that made Thomas famous. Industry analysts and company officials said the ads helped the company rebound from a difficult period in the mid-1980s when earnings sank. In 1996, Thomas taped his 500th commercial. Rotund at first, he appeared slimmer in the ads in recent years. "He's given Wendy's a corporate identity ... a down-homey type image. The lack of sophistication is a real benefit for the company," Diane Mustain, a financial analyst, said in 1991.
Despite his success, it wasn't until 1993 that he earned a high school equivalency certificate. That year, he told 2,500 Columbus public school seniors his biggest mistake was not finishing high school. "We have 4,000 restaurants today, but if I had gotten my high school diploma, we might have 8,000," he said.