The Untold Truth Of Wendy's Mascot

There are some brand mascots that are truly unforgettable figures. One of those mascots who has stood the test of time and seen a few revamps along the way is the Wendy's mascot. The Wendy's mascot has a surprisingly rich history and a lot of ties to Wendy's founder, Dave Thomas. Thomas opened his first restaurant featuring square burgers made from real beef alongside Frosty desserts in November 1969 in Columbus, Ohio (via Wendy's).

Wendy's may have had humble beginnings, but it brought innovation to the budding fast-food industry from the very beginning. Just one year after opening, the restaurant birthed the modern drive-through pick-up window, according to the company's Facebook page.

As Wendy's grew, so did the Thomas family's dedication to the brand. It's natural that Wendy's feels personal to them because the burger chain, which is a household name today, is named after one of their own: Dave's daughter, Melinda "Wendy" Thomas.

Dave Thomas was inspired to use a mascot by KFC's Colonel Sanders

Believe it or not, Dave Thomas' dream of opening his own restaurant came from working under the Clauss family, owners of a number of Kentucky Fried Chicken locations. After working together at a handful of Kentucky Fried Chicken locations in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Clausses offered Thomas a unique opportunity. They challenged him to move to Columbus, Ohio to work in a few struggling KFC franchise locations (via The Balance Small Business).

Thomas set his mind to it and worked toward his goal. He slimmed down the wide-ranging menu to focus on the chain's strengths and made some bold advertising moves, like installing a sign that featured a gigantic revolving red and white chicken bucket. Per Mental Floss, the changes worked, scoring Thomas a 45% ownership stake in the Columbus locations. Wisely, he made the move of selling his stake back to Colonel Sanders for $1.5 million. That gave him the money needed to open up the first Wendy's location.

When he made that move, Thomas knew he needed a mascot. He learned the importance of using a mascot in ads from KFC's Colonel Harland Sanders (via Square Deal Blog).

Dave Thomas tried all his kid's names for the restaurant

Dave Thomas was a father of five children: Pam, Ken, Molly, Melinda Lou, and Lori. He debated using each of their names for his new burger restaurant (via Wendy's). "My children's names came first [as possibilities] because I wanted it to be a family business, something for them to fall back on," Thomas wrote in his autobiography, "Dave's Way" (per The Wall Street Journal). "But calling it Pam's or Kenny's or Molly's or Melinda's or Lori's didn't have the right ring."

Thomas continued tossing ideas around his mind that related to his children's names before he decided on Wendy. Wendy was Melinda's nickname, which came from the fact that her two sisters and brother couldn't pronounce her name. She became "Wenda," and eventually, "Wendy". 

"Her cleanly scrubbed, freckled face was it," Mr. Thomas wrote of the revelation. "I knew that was the name and the image for the business."

The first mascot photos were taken in the Thomas home

Wendy Thomas recalled what it was like for the restaurant to open in a company blog. She recalled the day her dad came home and announced he was opening a burger restaurant.

"He wanted a character, because he worked for the Colonel at Kentucky Fried Chicken and knew how much that persona mattered," she recalled of her father's reasoning (via Square Deal). "He said, 'Wendy, pull your hair up in pigtails.' So, I did. He got his camera and took pictures of me and my sister and said, 'Yep, it's going to be Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers.' That was it. There was no marketing research, no nothing. Just boom. That's it."

Thomas was in the 3rd grade when the first restaurant opened. She admits she cried when her mom yanked her hair into pigtails. "Then she stuck those pipe cleaners in there," she recalled. "We sat in front of the photographer for what felt like five or six hours."

Wendy didn't realize what a big deal the chain was til she went to college

Wendy's was in its 15th year of business when Wendy Thomas went away to college. It was then that the magnitude of their little family business really became apparent to her. 

"That's when my dad was on TV, but I just didn't realize that everyone saw that. I understood the importance of marketing — that was my major — but I just always thought, well, not everyone will know. And then when everyone knew, I thought, wow, this is kind of big, isn't it?" Thomas explained to Square Deal in an interview.

Thomas' drives home showed her the scope of her family's empire. She would travel by car back and forth between the University of Florida and the Thomas family home in Columbus, Ohio. "When I'd drive back to Columbus, I knew I could always stop at a Wendy's and have my dad's 'home cooking' — and that's when it really sunk in for me. I thought, 'this is really cool. It's like being at home.'"

Dave encouraged Wendy to become a franchisee, but she worked for it herself

Though Wendy's is a big business, it's also a family business at heart. Wendy Thomas had the family business in mind when she attended the University of Florida. Thomas graduated in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in consumer behaviorism (via People Pill). 

Dave Thomas posed the idea of owning Wendy's franchise to his daughter when she returned to South Carolina from college. They looked into it and started the process, but Wendy revealed that she had to get a loan to make it happen (via Square Deal). "I had to get a loan, because my father wouldn't help us out ... But I was learning the hard way and I picked it up along the way, and I'm thankful he chose that path for us, because it made us really work hard and not have people assume 'oh, this was handed to you,'" she said.

Wendy opened a franchise in Dallas. She would end up opening several in the area, which she continued to manage until 1999. After Dave's death, she and her siblings purchased restaurants in Columbus, Ohio.

Dave apologized to Wendy for naming the restaurant after her

Being the face of an international company's mascot can sound fun and exciting. Of course there are perks to being the face of a franchise, but it can also be more complicated than that. Wendy Thomas has acknowledged that there were downsides to it and admitted to feeling a degree of pressure.

"It was the first time we'd ever had this conversation. He said, 'You know what? I'm sorry,'" she revealed to Square Deal. "He explained, 'I should've just named it after myself, because it put a lot of pressure on you.' I responded, 'Yeah, it is a lot of pressure. I have to do the right thing.'" 

That pressure is something she's struggled with over time, but her perspective on it has changed since her father's passing. Over time, Wendy explained that the pressure to do the right thing has transformed into her desire to live up to her father's legacy and continue carrying out his ideals. "I know he's been gone almost 20 years, but he's still working," she noted.

Wendy's has only changed their logo six times in over 50 years

Wendy Thomas remains at the heart of the Wendy's mascot, though there have been some changes throughout the years. Wendy's mascot underwent subtle changes at first. The logo debuted in 1969 and along with Wendy's drawn face, it read "Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers" (per Logo My Way). In 1971, the words "quality is our recipe" were added in an arc over Wendy's head.

In 1972, Wendy's logo was redesigned with flat colors and the typeface used in naming the restaurant was slightly updated. There were more updates four years later when the logo was updated to represent the restaurant's yellow and red color scheme, aspects of which lasted through the 80s and 90s (per Logopedia). 

The biggest change for the brand's logo came in 2013. The font went much more casual and Wendy herself got a rejuvenated redraw that still honors the original, especially with the pigtails.  

Wendy's fans believed there was a hidden message in the new logo

Wendy's new mascot design caught fans' attention in more ways than one. In fact, as the images began rolling out, some fans shared a theory that there was a subliminal message in the design. The new logo's ruffled collar appeared to hide the word "mom," especially in the versions rendered in a single color.

Some fans believed that the secret word was trying to drive home the family-centric aspect of the brand. Any food-driven brand, especially one with as much family history interwoven into their story as Wendy's, would benefit from being associated with home cooking.

Eventually, Wendy's commented and said that was not the case. "We are aware of this and find it interesting that it appears our Wendy cameo has 'mom' on her ruffled collar," Denny Lynch, Wendy's senior vice president of communications, said in a statement (via ABC News). "We can assure you it was unintentional."

There's only one Wendy's that has a mascot without red hair

The Wendy's mascot's red hair is a signature of the illustrated character. It was modeled after Wendy Thomas' own red hair. It appears the same on every single store ... except for one.

Redditor posted a photo of a rare anomaly: a Wendys' with a mascot that has black hair instead of red. It's on a restaurant in Hartsville, South Carolina. The town reportedly has an issue with the color red being used on signage, which can also be seen in a nearby McDonald's, which sports a green awning instead of their signature red.

The rare sign has been jokingly called "goth Wendy," "emo Wendy," or even "Wendy Adams" by those amused by the different vibe it gives off in comparison to the standard logo. Regardless, this Wendy appears to be one-of-a-kind among the 6,828 worldwide as of 2020 (via Statista).

Wendy's philanthropy has a special connection to the family

Wendy's is Dave Thomas' great legacy, but there's more to it than just the restaurants. Thomas also established The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992. Thomas himself was adopted at 6-months-old by a couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan (per Biography).

His step into philanthropy started in 1990, when Thomas accepted President George H.W. Bush's invitation to be the spokesperson for a national adoption awareness campaign (per The Dave Thomas Foundation). It became The Dave Thomas Foundation in 1992. The organization focuses on helping kids in the foster care system.

A lot of important work is done through the Dave Thomas Foundation. Its signature program, Wendy's Wonderful Kids, funds adoption professionals dedicated to finding loving, permanent homes for children waiting in foster care. It also works closely with child welfare advocates and policymakers to provide free resources raises awareness about foster care adoptions.

Wendy's mascot is a hit on Twitter for sassy tweets

Though the Wendy's mascot has always been thought of as a sweet, friendly, approachable figure, we get treated to another side of Wendy in the brand's Twitter persona. Their bio reads, "We like our tweets the same way we like to make our hamburgers: better than anyone expects from a fast food joint."

As of late 2021, the brand has over 3.8 million followers on the platform, who are there for the brilliant, sly roasts delivered from a voice behind the sweeter-than-pie mascot. Kurt Kane, chief concept and marketing officer at Wendy's, has opened up about what the brand is going for with its alter-ego. "I see stuff that surprises me all the time," Kane told Forbes in 2018. "We want to be likable and sassy. We don't want to be seen as sarcastic and rude. But we walk a fine line. Sometimes we get it wrong in tone."

Even at times where one can argue the tweets go too far, there are thousands backing up the mascot, a testament to how brand loyalty has translated to the internet age. Through the ups and downs of the last half a century, Wendy's mascot has come out strong.