While he reluctantly accepted his TV role, Mr. Thomas played it convincingly in 800 commercials for 13 years. "Dave was our patriarch, a great, big lovable man," said Jack Schuessler, Wendy's chairman-CEO.
Mr. Thomas originally relinquished the CEO post in 1982 when the company was prospering. Momentum hit a fever pitch in 1985 after the "Where's the beef?" campaign from the agency then known as Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, New York. But in the restaurant proliferation of the mid-'80s, operations slipped and the company lost money. That's when Mr. Thomas came back as a spokesman and quality control steward.
Wendy's and agency Backer Spielvogel Bates (now Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide, New York) put Mr. Thomas into a commercial in 1989 as a stop-gap effort. But consumers related to the humble entrepreneur's inelegant yet honest delivery.
Mr. Thomas' down-home delivery masked a strong business sense. In fact, he saw advertising and marketing as secondary to Wendy's success. "At a lot of places, their philosophy is to let marketing people run the business," Mr. Thomas told Advertising Age in 2000. At Wendy's, "marketing people can aid and assist, but it's operations, operations. I think that's the difference."
During his second tenure, Wendy's put a renewed emphasis on quality and innovation. It was the first national chain to launch an under-a-buck value menu and rotating sandwich special.
Mr. Thomas, a one-time protege of Kentucky Fried Chicken's Col. Harland Sanders, opened his hamburger stand in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, naming it Wendy's to honor his daughter.
Wendy's has grown to 6,000 worldwide units, with sales at company and franchise locations growing 7.5% to $6.2 billion for the nine months ended Sept. 30.
The chain has been reducing Mr. Thomas' ad role for the past two years, and researched approaches that play to brand values, while not including Mr. Thomas.
Wendy's halted advertising with the death, but planned late last week to run tribute ads. As soon as this week, Wendy's will resume its campaign, editing out Mr. Thomas' cameos.
By April, Wendy's expects to break new work. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Elma Garcia Films, a production company, last week was producing new spots for Wendy's in Sanford, Florida, focusing on small town America. A film company representative referred calls to Bates, which did not return calls at press time.
But in an earlier interview, Gary Steele, exec VP at Bates on the account, said food would be the focus of the new ads. "Wendy's is about the food, and therein lies our heritage," he said.