The Wendy’s franchise has been a staple of American fast-food for decades. Famous for its square hamburger patties and frosty desserts, the chain has also been characterized by its signature logo since day one: a smiling red-headed girl in pig-tails.
The marketing character, who remains on the restaurant’s logo to this day, was based on Melinda “Wendy” Thomas-Morse, company founder Dave Thomas’ daughter.
While the decision to emblazon his daughter as the emblem of the family business was in many ways a creative, sweet and incredibly all-American gesture, the decision placed a high level of public pressure on Wendy, as she recently revealed in an interview on the Wendy’s Square Deal blog.
According to Thomas-Morse, her father wasted no time in creating a symbolic character for his new hamburger restaurant, back in the late 1960s. He recognized the success that “Colonel Sanders” had brought to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and wanted a similar face to represent his own chain.
So, after getting the idea for a business, all he needed was a representative.
“My dad came home and said, ‘I’m going to start a restaurant and it’s going to be a hamburger restaurant,'” Thomas-Morse told Wendy’s Square Deal.
She remembered her father instructing her to pull her hair up into what would become her signature pigtails.
“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.'”
Just like that, she was the frontman (or front girl, rather) for a burgeoning business.
“My mom made my blue and white dress and she stuck my hair up in pigtails. And, boy, did I cry. It hurt. Then she stuck those pipe cleaners in there,” she said, adding that her father had planned a truly grandiose grand opening for his first Wendy’s restaurant.
“We sat in front of the photographer for what felt like five or six hours,” she said.
However, it wasn’t all bad being the face of Wendy’s, according to Thomas-Morse.
“I got to wear my dress and they made this huge hamburger,” she said. “I was just to-the-moon excited.”
Still, in the years that followed, she was surprised by how much pressure she felt to do the right thing in the public eye as the brand became more and more recognizable.
“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?” she said of her college years.
Her father, who had always pushed her to work hard and to make her own decisions, according to Thomas-Morse, began to recognize that life as the Wendy’s girl hadn’t always been easy for his daughter.
Shortly before his death in 2002, Thomas apologized to her for giving the restaurant her name.
“It was the first time we’d ever had this conversation,” Thomas-Morse told Wendy’s Square Deal.
“He said, ‘You know what? I’m sorry.’ I asked him what he meant. 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.'”
However, in spite of the challenges Wendy’s caused for Thomas-Morse, the life lessons she learned from her dad about hard work as she watched him build his dream continue to inspire her.
“I have to do the right thing, because it’s the legacy I have to carry on,” she said.
“I want to do the right thing by him, because he worked really hard to start this. I know he’s been gone almost 20 years, but he’s still working.”
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