Woman On Top

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Melinda Lou 'Wendy' Thomas

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Wendy's Franchise Owner (& namesake)
photo from DSandler.org

However trite, the image of “daddy’s little girl” is certainly enduring. Perhaps that is because every little (and big) girl knows that there is nothing comparable to a father-daughter relationship. Moreover, every girl knows there is nothing quite like the ever-popular father-daughter “date,” especially one that includes fast food, an overdressed little girl, and some sort of plastic toy. It is no accident, then, that one of the most famous American images of daddy’s girl includes all three of these elements. Melinda “Wendy” Thomas, the red-haired namesake of Wendy’s fast food restaurants, began her career as America’s daddy’s girl in 1969. Nearly forty years later, Wendy Thomas proves that her role as daddy’s girl extends even beyond the pigtails and freckles that have come to adorn Wendy’s signs. Following her father’s death in 2002, Wendy and her siblings opted to continue the father-daughter tradition. Their ideas directed them toward the business world.

In the case of Wendy’s restaurant, business and family seem to be inevitably linked. When Dave Thomas opened his first Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, he named the hamburger restaurant in honor of his eight-year old daughter Melinda Lou “Wendy” Thomas. Wendy was a nickname given to Melinda Lou by her four siblings, and came to be the name that she preferred for herself. Within a few years, Wendy’s restaurants, and the image of eight-year old Wendy herself, became synonymous with fresh made-to-order food.

Throughout her childhood and early-adult years, Wendy Thomas understood that being “daddy’s girl” also meant sharing her father with America. Although Wendy continued to serve as the namesake and image of the restaurant, her father Dave certainly became the heart of the company. Dave appeared in over 800 commercials throughout his lifetime. As a result of this exposure, he became as much a part of the fast food chain’s image as his daughter.

While her father may have become the heart of the company, Wendy Thomas continued to live up to her role as the franchise’s “daddy’s girl” and remained rather active in her father’s business. She owned several Wendy’s restaurants in the Dallas area until 1999. Following her father’s death in 2002, Wendy chose to reenter the business side of her father’s company. She and her siblings ultimately decided that it was only appropriate to carry on their father’s legacy through Wendy’s restaurants.

After Dave Thomas’s death, many business experts remarked that Wendy’s had lost its soul. To be sure, Wendy’s restaurants suffered from product flops, financial problems, and cutbacks following the death of its beloved founder. Along with the entire Wendy’s corporation, Dave Thomas’s children also felt the void left by their father’s death. Still, Wendy and her siblings understood that the best way to honor their father was through his business itself. Wendy, along with her three sisters and one brother, initially bought fifteen Wendy’s restaurants in the Columbus, Ohio area, near the site of their father’s first Wendy’s restaurant. Within a few years, Wendy Thomas owned roughly thirty restaurants in Ohio.

To the company, though, Wendy Thomas is more than just a partnership franchisee. In the absence of her father, Wendy assumed a leadership position to help keep the company focused. Several of the company’s executives and senior research analysts follow Wendy Thomas’s lead, realizing that no one understands better the vision of the company’s founder. Wendy Thomas often emphasizes the set-up of Wendy’s headquarters as a model of her father’s vision. As visitors enter, they are greeted by the well-known image of Dave Thomas and a reminder that “Quality is our recipe.” Because of Wendy Thomas’s focus, many executives at Wendy’s confess that they often wonder if Dave Thomas would approve of their immediate decisions.

Dave Thomas influenced more than just his own business. Today, Wendy continues to be involved in her father’s other pursuits. In 1992, Dave founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption for the purpose of educating prospective adoptive parents and making the adoption process easier and more affordable. Wendy Thomas took part in the unveiling of an adoption advocacy stamp that was inspired by her father’s work. In speaking of her father’s foundation, Wendy commented that Dave Thomas’s work helped to influence corporate America’s outlook on adoption benefits.

If Dave’s work with adoption was indicative of one thing, it was that family may be continually renewed and constantly redefined. Nobody knows this better than Wendy Thomas, who joined with her siblings to renew her father’s business traditions and volunteer work. While she may not be a traditional daddy’s girl anymore, she is certainly helping to carry on the relationship that she had with her own father. The little girl who began her role as an icon is now a businesswoman and Wendy’s customer. As a former daddy’s girl, Wendy Thomas continues her father’s legacy – as a businesswoman and a mother.

About The Author:

Gianna Englert

Gianna Englert graduated from Saint Vincent College in 2008 with a BA in political science. She now spends her time reading Great Books in pursuit of a masters degree in liberal arts. She has been a contributor to CapitalistChicks.com since 2005.