Why Did Dave Thomas Regret Naming Wendy’s After His Daughter?

Wendy's Franchise Dave Thomas

Fast-Food Founder Said That Wendy’s Branding Put Pressure on His Daughter

When Dave Thomas was preparing to launch his fast-food burger concept in 1969, he had trouble coming up with a name. Thomas, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee who was mentored by its founder, Col. Harland Sanders, wanted his new restaurant to appeal to consumers, particularly baby boomers, who would happily fork over a smidgen of extra money for a pricier burger made with never-frozen beef in a customizable sandwich.  

Thomas considered naming his concept after one of his five kids for what he foresaw as a family business, CNN Business reports, but their legal names weren’t quite right for the wholesome, old-fashioned ambiance he envisioned. Sanders had taught Thomas that a business mascot should strike an important personal chord with customers, he wrote in his 1991 memoir “Dave’s Way.”

Wendy and Her Famous Pigtails

Ultimately Thomas settled on his family’s nickname for his next-youngest child, 8-year-old Melinda Lou, the CNN Business story says. She was nicknamed Wenda as a baby because her siblings had trouble articulating Melinda and the nickname eventually evolved to Wendy.

Thomas told his daughter to put her hair in pigtails and snapped photos that inspired the mascot that became globally synonymous with the Wendy’s franchise. “To me, nothing would be a more appealing advertisement than showing a little girl, smiling and rosy-cheeked” enjoying a burger, wrote Thomas, who died in 2002. “Her cleanly-scrubbed, freckled face was it. I knew that was the name and image for the business,” which opened a flagship site in Columbus, Ohio, roughly 53 years ago. 

Effects on Wendy

But later on, Thomas expressed misgivings about using his daughter’s moniker in branding Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers because he felt the name focused too much attention on her. “She’s lost some of her privacy,” he said in his autobiography. “Some people still take her for the official company spokesperson. Sometimes she hedges speaking her mind. I don’t blame her.”

The founder father even apologized to her, saying, “I should’ve just named it after myself, because it put a lot of pressure on you,” according to a 2019 blog post from Wendy Thomas-Morse, who also happens to be a Wendy’s franchisee, on the occasion of the restaurant’s 50th anniversary.

Even though the naming and branding decision caused some problems for Thomas-Morse, it was a winner for the fast-food concept. Almost immediately baby boomers comprised a generous percentage of Wendy’s patrons, just as Thomas had hoped. By the mid-1970s, 82% of Wendy’s customers were older than 25, “contrasting markedly with all competitors,” co-authors John Jakle and Keith Sculle stated in the 1999 book Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age.

Wendy’s Ad Campaigns

Within a decade of its founding, the United States had more than 1,000 Wendy’s around the nation. Its 1984 Where’s the Beef? ad campaign boosted the restaurants’ annual revenue by 31% that year. Thomas, in a just-plain-folks short-sleeved white shirt, became the face of his brand in 800-plus TV ads between 1989 and his death. 

Despite Thomas’s apology to his daughter, in 2011 Wendy Thomas-Morse didn’t always duck the spotlight. She made her inaugural appearance in a commercial touting a new cheeseburger as the chain’s “hottest and juiciest ever.” 

Wendy Thomas-Morse’ Net Worth

Dave Thomas may have regretted naming Wendy’s after his daughter, but she may not think it was all bad. With an estimated net worth of $100 million, Thomas-Morse is a Wendy’s franchisee who owns more than 30 restaurants. She also helps give back through the burger franchise as a board member of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a U.S. public nonprofit charity that is focused exclusively on foster care adoption. Through the Foundation’s signature program, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, dedicated adoption professionals find permanent families for children in foster care who are most often overlooked.

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