The Truth About Wendy's Owner Dave Thomas' Relationship With Colonel Sanders

Dave Thomas might be the most recognizable face of American fast food, thanks to his appearance in more than 800 TV commercials for Wendy's (via Wendy's). The only one who might compete for that distinction is Col. Harland Sanders, whose image appears on every bucket of KFC and who also appeared in TV ads for what was then called Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's no coincidence the two entrepreneurs were the pitchmen as well as owners of their respective businesses. In the early days of KFC, Thomas worked for Sanders and got a chance to run his own restaurants — although the colonel didn't approve of the way he did a few things.

Thomas' history with Sanders dates back to the 1950s. In his 20s at the time, Thomas was head cook at a Hobby House restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Col. Sanders was touring the country, trying to talk restaurant owners into converting their establishments into Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Thomas' boss, Hobby House owner Phil Clauss, was interested. Hobby House became Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Thomas became an early KFC cook (via the balance). The fateful relationship between two fast-food giants had begun. Thomas's dream was to open his own restaurant, and Col. Sanders "quickly became one of Dave's strongest mentors," as the Wendy's website puts it.

Colonel Sanders didn't want Dave Thomas running his restaurants

Thomas got his first big opportunity in 1962, when his boss, Clauss, asked him to take over four struggling Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas took on the challenge, even though Sanders disapproved. In an interview with POV Magazine in 1997, Thomas said Sanders was a bit of a grouch (via YouTube). He didn't want Thomas running any of his restaurants if Thomas was going to dump the chicken out of the pot, rather than ladling each piece out. "I had to do what I had to do. You really couldn't reason with him," Thomas said.

A number of Thomas' innovations, though, helped turn those four Ohio KFCs around. He simplified the menu and came up with the classic rotating red bucket sign. Thomas also convinced the colonel to appear in TV ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken (via the balance) — advice Thomas would take himself for Wendy's. 

Thomas' success enabled him to sell his stake in the four franchises back to the colonel, for $1.5 million. He used the money to open his first Wendy's, in Columbus, Ohio in 1969 (via Mental Floss.) Thomas told POV Magazine that he felt trapped at age 25, trying to raise a growing family on a cook's wages. But the colonel came to the rescue, begrudgingly giving him an opportunity that made him a millionaire by 35 — not to mention the nation's second iconic fast-food founder.