The Lives of Legendary Fast-Food Founders

The lives of legendary fast-food founders

These Pioneering Franchisors Set the Stage for Quick-Service Restaurants

Franchising has produced some of the business world’s most iconic entrepreneurs. This is especially true in the fast-food sector. Not only have these founders impacted the way we eat, but they have set the stage for customer service, food quality and every other aspect of the QSR space.

While becoming a business owner comes with great risks, the following legendary fast-food founders profiled below can serve as inspiration to follow your entrepreneurial dreams. 

Legendary Fast-Food Founders

S. Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A

legendary franchise founder
Photo: Chick-fil-A

Early Life: Despite growing up in poverty, Cathy was entrepreneurial from a young age and showed interest in food when helping his mother in the kitchen. At 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII. 
Notable Accomplishments: After being honorably discharged from the military, he and his brother, Ben Cathy, opened the Dwarf Grill (later renamed the Dwarf House) in 1946. In 1951, Cathy opened a second Dwarf House location, where he came up with the formula for the Chick-fil-A sandwich. Since the first Chick-fil-A location opened in 1967, the faith-based fast-food franchise has expanded to nearly 3,000 locations in North America and Puerto Rico. In addition to being a billionaire franchisor, Cathy is the author of several inspirational books, including Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People, It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail, It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men, and How Did You Do It, Truett?. 
Family Life: Cathy grew up in a big family (he was the second youngest of seven). He met his childhood sweetheart, Jeannette McNeil, at church, and they stayed married from 1948 until his death in 2014. According to Chick-fil-A’s website, the couple is survived by their sons Dan and Don Cathy; daughter Trudy Cathy White; and 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. The Cathy family is carrying on the Chick-fil-A legacy. 
Philanthropic Endeavors: In life and in business, Cathy was driven by his Chrisitan faith. He and Jeannette founded the WinShape Foundation in 1984, a nonprofit organization that sponsors scholarships, camps and foster care programs.

Fred DeLuca, Subway

legendary franchise founder
Photo: Subway

Early Life: As a child, DeLuca was driven to succeed both academically and entrepreneurially. He worked hard and became a member of Junior Achievement, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and prepare young people to succeed. At the young age of 17, he and a family friend, Dr. Peter Buck, opened Pete’s Super Submarine with $1,000 and a handshake. 
Notable Accomplishments: DeLuca exemplifies the classic rags-to-riches story, growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y. According to Subway’s tribute to DeLuca, he carried the torch during the Olympics and was inducted into the International Franchise Association’s Hall of Fame and the Entrepreneur’s Hall of Fame. He is also the author of Small Finish Big: Fifteen Key Lessons to Start-and-Run Your Own Successful Business. 
Family Life: He and his high school sweetheart, Elisabeth, stayed married until his death in 2015. 
Philanthropic Endeavors: The Frederick A. DeLuca Foundation, founded in 1997, supports charitable programs that empower individuals to lead healthy and productive lives through education, awareness and more. 

Ray Kroc, McDonald’s 

legendary franchise founder
Photo: McDonald’s

Early Life: Kroc was born to Czech American parents in 1902. Growing up, he was naturally inclined towards entrepreneurship and service to others.  
Notable Accomplishments: Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955, ramped up the brand’s franchise numbers and founded the Franchise Realty Corporation, which handled the company’s real estate deals. Some of the McDonald’s franchise’s most popular items, such as the Filet-O-Fish, Big Mac, and Egg McMuffin, were created due to the franchise expansion credited to Kroc.
Family Life: Due to being a “workaholic” and perfectionist, he had a tumultuous personal life and was married three times before passing away in 1984. 
Philanthropic Endeavors: Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Golden Arches’ charity of choice, was established in 1984 in Kroc’s memory to help terminally ill children and their families. 

Jimmy John Liautaud, Jimmy John’s

legendary franchise founder
Photo: Jimmy John’s

Early Life: Liautaud didn’t come from a wealthy family. In fact, his father filed for bankruptcy multiple times. School was also a challenge for Liautaud because of his struggles with weight and dyslexia. This caused him to want to go a different route than college or the military, so he decided to open a sub business in 1983. 
Notable Accomplishments: Through hard work and determination, he became a billionaire, and the Jimmy John’s franchise has grown to 2,800 stores in 48 states, according to its website. Jimmy John’s was acquired by Inspire Brands in 2019.
Family Life: He is married to Leslie Liautaud, and they have three children: Spencer, Lucy, and Fred. 
Philanthropic Endeavors: The Liautauds founded the Liautaud Family Foundation in 2017 to support charities that focus on the U.S. military, education, wellness, and more. 

Tom Monaghan, Domino’s Pizza

legendary franchise founder

Early Life: Monaghan had a difficult childhood. Not only did he lose his father, but he and his brother, Jim, were put into a Roman Catholic orphanage after their mother was unable to care for them. Dedicated to service, Tom also served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War until he was honorably discharged.
Notable Accomplishments:
After leading the Domino’s franchise to decades of success, Monaghan sold the business to Bain Capital Inc. for $1 billion in 1998. He also established St. Thomas More Law Center and Ave Maria University and served as president of the Ave Maria Law School’s Board of Governors.
Family Life: He has been married to his wife, Marjorie “Margie” Zybach, since 1964. The couple has four daughters, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Philanthropic Endeavors:
Monaghan is a faithful Christian and plans to donate much of his wealth to charity after he passes away.

Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC

legendary franchise founder
Photo: KFC

Early Life: Sanders had to grow up quickly at 6 years old when his father passed away, and he had to cook for his siblings while their mother worked. He ended up dropping out of school in the seventh grade. At 16, he faked his age to join the U.S. Army. He served in Cuba for a few months and was honorably discharged. (Contrary to his nickname, he wasn’t actually a colonel!) 
Notable Accomplishments: He never gave up; his recipe was rejected 1,009 times before anyone accepted it. KFC became successful when Sanders was in his ’60s, proving that you can make it at any age. An industrious man, he worked as a laborer, sold life insurance, and founded a ferry boat company. 
Family Life: According to his Wikipedia page, Sanders was married twice. His first wife was named Josephine King, who he was married to for nearly 40 years. He was then married to Claudia Price until his death in 1980. 
Philanthropic Endeavors: Since Sanders was passionate about helping others, the KFC Foundation was established to serve and invest in KFC employees.

Dave Thomas, Wendy’s

legendary franchise founder
Photo: Wendy’s

Early Life: Born Rex David Thomas on July 2, 1932, he never met his birth mother and was adopted when he was six months old. His early life was fraught with tragedy. His adoptive mother died when he was five years old, and he lost two stepmothers by the time he was 10, according to Biography.com. He had several jobs as a pre-teen, and after getting his first job at a restaurant at 15, he dropped out of school to work full-time. (He later regretted not graduating and passed the G.E.D in 1993.)
Notable Accomplishments: He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The original Wendy’s restaurant opened in 1969 and was named after his daughter, Melinda Lou. In less than a decade, the fast-food chain grew into a franchise of 1,000 locations. In 1989, Thomas became the company’s spokesman and made a series of successful commercials. Before opening Wendy’s, he was a KFC franchisee mentored by Colonel Harland Sanders.
Family Life: He married his wife, Lorraine, in 1956. They had five children and stayed married until his death in 2002.
Philanthropic Endeavors: After President George H.W. Bush named Thomas a national spokesperson on adoption issues, he was inspired to create the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992.

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Haley Cafarella is a passionate journalist and writer for IFPG. In her role as content and marketing specialist, she creates original articles for FranchiseWire and Franchise Consultant Magazine. Her specialties include educational articles about buying a franchise and franchise consulting. She also reports on franchise professionals who were recently promoted or hired through FranchiseWire’s popular HireWire series.

Haley has contributed to a variety of regional publications, including Quo Vadis, New Brunswick Today, and the Trenton Monitor. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Rutgers University.
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