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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a 1998 interview with Convenience Store News Dave Thomas said his life was dedicated to brining quality food to customers at an affordable price in a fun environment.
Thomas accomplished that goal and so much more. The fast-food innovator and founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain, whose homespun commercials helped turn it into one of the world's top fast-food enterprises, died yesterday of liver cancer. He was 69.
Thomas, who died at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had been undergoing kidney dialysis for nearly a year and had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1996. He became a household name when he began pitching his burgers and fries in TV commercials in 1989 for Wendy's International, based in Dublin, Ohio.
But his dedication to the food industry began much earlier. Thomas was 12 when he got his first restaurant job, as a counterman in Knoxville, Tenn.
In 1956, he was working at a barbecue restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., when Col. Harland Sanders, his mentor, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame stopped in on a promotional tour. Thomas's boss bought a KFC franchise, and six years later, Thomas came to Columbus to take over four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.
Thomas instituted visionary programs, such as co-branding with local oil companies and offering discounts to gas customers of an Ohio oil chain, Certified Oil, who showed a fuel receipt while making a purchase at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
The programs were an immediate success. Thomas eventually sold the units back to Col. Sanders in 1968 for $1.5 million, making him 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.
Thomas said the burgers were square because Wendy's didn't cut corners.
The chain now has 6,000 restaurants worldwide, including approximately 300 co-branded restaurants in the United States. In 1996, Wendy's acquired Canadian-based Tim Hortons, a coffee and baked goods chain with more than 2,000 stores. Both have combined sales of more than $8 billion.
Thomas, who was adopted as an infant, created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, an organization focused on raising public awareness of adoption. The profits from his books, "Well Done!" and "Dave's Way," go to the foundation. Convenience Store News has also supported the foundation.
He tried to retire in 1982 but came back in 1989. "They took the focus off the consumer," Thomas told CSNews in 1998. "If you're willing to compromise, you cheat people. That's not the way we do business."
Thomas is survived by his wife, Lorraine; five children and 16 grandchildren.