In the mid-1980s, Thomas stepped down into an advisory role and took the titles of senior chairman of the board and founder. He hired an experienced team of managers to run the company on a day-to-day basis, most of them former franchise owners with impressive credentials in the food business.
The "Where's the Beef" advertising campaign, starring retired Chicago manicurist Clara Peller, exploded onto the scene of the 1984 "Burger Wars," between Burger King and McDonald's, and stole the spotlight from Thomas' larger competitors. Some groups raised a fuss, saying the ads made fun of seniors, but by the end of its second wave, the campaign had increased public awareness of the company from 37 to 60 percent.
In 1989, Thomas was brought back into the fray to act as the company's spokesperson, a job he enjoys almost as much as he enjoyed building his company. At 63, he is on the move constantly, making public appearances and doing TV spots. In the last six years, he's made over 383 TV ads. This year, he's scheduled to make 90 commercials. Put it all together, and Thomas is on the road almost 200 days a year.
When Thomas is trying to do a thousand things at once, he does exactly what he's been doing for 25 years: He finds the nearest Wendy's and has a double cheeseburger with mustard, pickles and onions, a bowl of chili and an order of french fries, and then washes it down with a large Frosty. After that he's charged and ready to go.
Bob Weinstein is a frequent contributor to national magazines.