COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Future Wendy's commercials will carry on the homespun tradition that founder Dave Thomas used to help turn the hamburger chain into one of the world's top fast-food enterprises.
Thomas, who began pitching his burgers and fries in television commercials in 1989 and went on to become a household face, died Tuesday of liver cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 69. He had been undergoing kidney dialysis for nearly a year and had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1996.
"We have to carry on the tradition and the culture that Dave started," said Denny Lynch, vice president of communications for Wendy's International, based in suburban Dublin. "It is still Dave's place and Wendy's still cares."
Lynch said Thomas, who appeared in more than 800 of the humorous ads usually wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, will be edited out of the commercials made four months ago. Older commercials will not be rerun, he said.
"People told us what they like about Dave is that he is very believable, trusting and caring," Lynch said. "And they didn't use those words lightly."
Thomas' participation in recent commercials had been more of a cameo role, Wendy's officials told industry analysts Wednesday.
"Dave always said he was the messenger, not the message," said chairman and chief executive officer Jack Schuessler.
Jim McKennan, executive vice president of Bates Worldwide, the New York-based advertising company that helped create the ads, said the company had planned for making commercials without Thomas.
"We have had several other campaigns. So, although we were dreading this moment, we were prepared for it," he said. "We designed something that basically had the message and the flavor of Dave ... but without him."
Customers connected with Thomas through his folksy, sometimes self-effacing humor. Five years ago, the company staged a lookalike contest that attracted 1,600 entrants vying for the grand prize: a chance to appear in a commercial with Thomas.
People were endeared to the smiling, bespectacled Thomas, in part because of his rags-to-riches background. Thomas was 12 when he got his first restaurant job, as a counterman in Knoxville, Tenn.
In 1962, Thomas came to Columbus to take over four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. He sold them back to the founder Col. Harland Sanders in 1968 for $1.5 million, making Thomas 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.
The chain now has 6,000 restaurants worldwide. In 1996, Wendy's acquired Canadian-based Tim Hortons, a coffee and baked goods chain with more than 2,000 stores. They have combined sales of more than $8 billion.
On Wednesday, the company said December sales rose 6.3 percent at its Wendy's restaurants in the United States, versus 2.6 percent a year ago. Sales were up 13.6 percent for the month at Tim Hortons restaurants in the United States compared with 11.3 percent a year ago.