It has been 20 years since Melinda Thomas set foot in a McDonald’s. And she has never, ever, been inside a Burger King or a Hardee’s. Wendy’s, however, is a different story. There she feels right at home, as well she should since the freckle-faced redhead whose face adorns the hamburger chain’s sign is none other than Melinda (Wendy, to her family and friends) Thomas herself, circa 1969.
Wearing a high-necked, frilly dress, Wendy, then 8, posed for the photograph in a studio in Columbus, Ohio. She beat out her two older sisters, Pam and Molly, and a brother, Kenny, for the honor of having her father’s brand-new hamburger chain named after her. “Dad wanted a name that was easy to remember, and he wanted an all-American mug,” says Wendy, now 28 and recently married to Paul Morse, 29, with whom she manages a country club in Columbia, S.C. “I was redheaded and had freckles and buckteeth, so I got elected.”
The Wendy logo became ubiquitous, and the chain founded by R. David Thomas now enjoys sales of $3 billion a year. “There was always teasing,” says Wendy, still redheaded but without the freckles or buckteeth. “It just goes with the territory.” (Presumably, a share in the family fortune—Thomas owns 8 percent of Wendy’s stock—also goes with the territory.)
Says her father, still Wendy’s chairman: “I know there are times she wishes her name wasn’t Wendy. When you name something after someone, that’s a lot of responsibility, good and bad. I remember she’d be very embarrassed sometimes. I’m not sure I’d do it again.”
Actually, Wendy is back in the limelight—in a way. In one of the chain’s new TV commercials, an offscreen voice snippily orders Thomas to hang a menu board differently. The voice, as it happens, belongs to Wendy.