5 Wild True Stories About Fast Food Tycoons
Is there any tycoon more perversely fascinating than a fast-food mogul? Some of these bootstrapping founders who turned breaded pig anuses into American empires have been the subjects of endless magazine profiles, biographies, and even a 2016 Hollywood movie in which Michael Keaton played McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who famously devoured the hamburger heads of the weaker McDonald's brothers to absorb their power. (Note: we didn't actually watch that movie.)
But today, we're here to talk about the lesser-known fast food founders, such as ...
Little Caesars’ Owner Secretly Paid Rosa Parks’ Rent
Despite peddling the most universally loved food in the world, pizza magnates themselves tend to be as unpalatable as a slice with pineapple and hemorrhoids. Order at Domino’s and you’re giving money to Tom Monaghan to build his gated community cult in a Florida swamp. Give money to Papa John’s, you’re giving money to Papa John. Hell, it seems that there’s only one pizza chain in America where you can enjoy authentic Italian pizza and authentic Roman ethics, Little Caesars.
Mike Ilitch, Motor City native, pizza tycoon and lifetime fan/part-time owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers would have been the first to point out that this isn’t a story about Little Caesars but about a civil rights legend. In 1994, Rosa Parks was attacked in her Detroit apartment by a burglar who must’ve turned to a life of crime after failing his civics classes. No longer safe in her home, the 81-year-old icon wanted to move to a place where junkies didn’t beat up historic seniors for $50, which in Detroit would raise her rent by about a grand. But the veteran activist didn’t have that kind of money, spending most of her pension on medication for her ulcers, heart problems, and chronic insomnia from a lifetime of having to sleep with one eye open.
Coming to her aid was longtime friend and judge Damon Keith. Keith pleaded with all his affluent friends for funds so that Park’s civil rights legend wouldn’t end the way it started, with her hanging around a bus station. And while many Detroiters delivered, the fundraiser came to a quick and cheese-crusted full circle with a single call from Mike Ilitch. The deep dish dictator (the good kind) had read about Mrs. Parks’ predicament in the paper and had reached out to settle the matter -- with payment in full. Ilitch promised Parks that he would cover her steep rent at the secure Riverview Apartments indefinitely, writing a $2,000 check every month. And he kept his word right until her passing in 2005, having spent well over $400,000 of his pepperoni money to make one of the bravest black women in history feel safe.
But you know what made Ilitch not just a good ally but a great one? He didn’t do it to suck his own Italian sausage. The big cheese behind Little Caesars paid Mrs. Parks’ rent year after year without ever bragging about it, publicizing the story, or putting a Rosa Parks Pie on the menu. (Peanut butter and chicken spread evenly across a white pizza). The charity caesar was ready to take this secret, together with what makes his Crazy Bread so crazy, to the grave. However, old loudmouth Keith spilled the basil right before Ilitch’s passing in 2017, wanting the beloved Detroiter to get at least some recognition for being a Good Dude. But for the founder of Little Caesars, the privilege to support a civil rights hero seemed to satisfy him plenty. That, and being the only white guy to figure out what it takes to get Rosa Parks to move: respect, compassion, and a whole lot of change.
Subway’s Founder Ruled His Sandwich Empire Like A Lecherous Tyrant
For over 50 years, Subway built the largest fast food chains on the back of it being everyone’s safe second lunch order pick. But that reassuring blandness turned out to be a front and, in 2015, the truth that the face of Subway was as a power-hungry abuser and sexual deviant started spilling out like so much marinara sauce. Fortunately for the franchises, no one noticed this scandal because they were too distracted by the news that Jared from Subway was a child molester.
Mere weeks after Jared Fogle’s arrest for trying to get into the smallest of pants, the sandwich chain’s founder Frederick DeLuca quietly died aged 87. On the surface, much like a Subway sandwich, DeLuca had appeared well put together, the kind of hard-working, simple living, bootstrapping billionaire who still wears cheap suits and only flies coach. But deep inside, also like a Subway sandwich, DeLuca was an unpalatably sloppy mess, the kind of domineering robber baron who was only uncomplicated in that he loved two things: unlimited power and Subway franchise owners' wives.
As its founder, DeLuca ruled over Subway with a plastic-wrapped iron fist. The Charlemagne of chicken and bacon ranch melts would lure in new franchise serfs with the promise that Subway was like “a big family.” That he meant had installed family members and loyal flunkies across the Subway executive board making him patriarch supreme, he conveniently failed to mention. As an absolute sub sovereign, DeLuca would collect exorbitant tithes from his powerless franchise serfs, some of which he used to pad his personal coffers with $7 million dollars in “bonus money” every single week. And the fresh tyrant enforced taxation without representation, as all but the most influential franchise owners were left to fend for themselves against harsh winters, kitchen plagues, and territorial disputes with other franchisees.
But other subordinates, especially those with attractive wives, got a lot more attention than they wanted. DeLuca was such a power-mad Medieval despot he also implemented a corporate prima nocta. Having banished his long-suffering queen to the forgotten wastes of Connecticut, the lecherous king DeLuca would Weinstein any employee who “wore a skirt and had a pulse.” But his favorite feudal form of fornication was cuckolding his peers. DeLuca made a sport of sleeping with franchise owners’ wives, who also often didn’t feel they could say no to the man “responsible for their husbands’ success.”
And like every megalomaniac despot, DeLuca believed that the Subway, it was him. So when after his death the company discovered he had not only left no succession plan but no successors (he was the only one allowed to know how every part of the business worked) the sandwich chain started crumbling with hundreds of locations shut down and thousands fired. Now, the remaining members of the family are looking to cash out and end the DeLuca dynasty, hopefully before a Subway revolution sees their heads put on the block. (You know, the one with the sharp slicer they use for the hard cheeses.)
Wendy’s David Thomas Really Regretted Making His Daughter A Mascot
Part of the enduring hamburger joint appeal has to be its gallery of colorful, wacky mascots. But unlike a Ronald or a Carl, Wendy isn’t just a mascot, she’s a real-life person. And boy does her dad have a lot of regrets about that.
Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas knew what fast-food customers want: quality food at low prices in a homey atmosphere that makes them forget they’re in the airport. So like his trans fat sensei, Colonel Sanders, he wanted to put a family-friendly face on his logo. But with Dave looking more like the face of parboiled potatoes than quality hamburgers, he instead chose another Thomas to be the name and face of his new hamburger chain: his 8-year-old daughter, Melinda, who went by the nickname Wendy after the sound she made as a lisping toddler trying to pronounce her own name.
That Wendy’s became the number three burger chain (and number one hamburger chain, David Thomas would insist) in the world was in no small part thanks to the adorable mid-century wholesomeness of Melinda. But the Thomases leaned so much on that image soon all distinction between meat-Wendy and patty-Wendy was erased. Kitted out in a blue and white dress and with pipe cleaners shoved into her hair for those iconically weightless pigtails, little Melinda would routinely be trotted out at Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers events as her own mascot. And nearing the end of his life, Thomas would count this as one of his biggest regrets.
Right before his death in 2002, Thomas sorrowfully apologized to Melinda, acknowledging that by using her name and face as a marketing tool he had also “put a lot of pressure” on her to buy into the burger-flipping family business. Melinda agreed, but assured her dying dad that she had long embraced her double stack destiny, over time becoming one of the biggest franchise owners and even the official spokesperson of Wendy’s, and that he had nothing to feel guilty about. (That said, he did not live long enough to witness the preponderance of Wendy's themed hentai that currently populate the internet.)
The Founder Of Jimmy John’s Is Fast Food’s Worst Fratboy
As the sandwich shop for real men (#swollencolonsquad), Jimmy John’s found its success in sticking to the basics. Its customer base of hungover bros are offered just six meats, three breads, two hard cheeses, and one painfully turgid struggle on the toilet. But while Jimmy John’s founder is definitely as basic as his sandwiches, he prefers to spend his money on acquiring more rare and exotic food -- and then shooting it through the head.
Jimmy John Liautaud, which sounds like the stage name of a New Jersey ballet dancer, is the founder of Jimmy John’s and the Guy Fieri of billionaires if Guy Fieri was the tacky meathead people think he is. JJ achieved the American Billionaire Dream the old-fashioned way: through hard work, a sizable loan from his father, excessive labor exploitation, and selling out to explicitly evil venture capitalists for a billion dollars.
Like any overpaid goon facing early retirement, JJ now squanders his fortune on owning things no one should own, like massive yachts, limited edition cars (“When there’s a super rare car, I always try to buy two,” he frequently boasts), and of course the heads of endangered animals. As a prolific big game hunter. JJ has gone on murder safaris from the Antarctic pole to the African heartland, with pictures periodically popping up on social media to remind people that the guy you buy your Big Italian from spent a lot of that money on the thrill of putting a bullet into a rhino.
Many of JJ’s confirmed kills were published in Sporting Classics Daily. According to the hunting mag, the sandwich magnate spent most of his thirties and forties paying white African mercenaries to track, chauffeur him to and help him pull the trigger on elephants, rhinos, buffalos, leopards, zebras, hyenas, and several types of rare antelopes. And that was just from one hunt.
After much internet outrage and several Jimmy John’s boycotts, Liautaud did have to pack in his exotic big game killing spree. Now, whenever he gets the craving to destroy something powerful, majestic and horribly endangered, he just sets his sights on American democracy. Aside from his hobbies, JJ is also big into charity, having donated a significant percentage of a percentage on his wealth to charitable causes. Especially his favorite charity case, the home for wayward mayo boys that is the Trump re-election campaign, to which he has donated $100,000.
Despite all that, Jimmy John still finds time to secure his legacy as the world’s first robber baron who can do a keg stand. Notoriously anti-union, he continues to foster a corporate culture at Jimmy John’s that’s as hostile to worker’s rights as it is to low-fat mayo. So despite having sold his life’s works to a bunch of libertarian vampires, he still voluntarily acts as spokesperson for Jimmy John’s and the chain’s new purpose: to act as a bargaining chip for its parent company to infiltrate the foodservice lobby and destroy minimum wage legislation. Damn Jimmy John, you're giving Papa John a run for his money here.
Colonel Sanders Was, Get This, Not A Racist
Though his shadow looms large over every combination McDonald’s/Taco Bell/KFC, the real Colonel Sanders has always been a man of tall tales. Was he really a colonel? Was he really a spice savant? Was he really country star Reba McIntyre wearing a poorly glued goatee? In fact, there seems to be only one thing people feel safe to assume about the fried chicken mogul who cosplayed as a plantation owner, lived in one of the most racist places in America, was the inspiration for a KKK- villain in a blaxploitation movie, owned a pet bird called Jim Crow and supported a segregationist presidential candidate:
But that guy? He didn’t have “a racist bone in his body,” according to Ray Callender, a Southern Black man, former publicist and Sander’s Guy Friday during an extensive P.R. tour in the seventies. Like many others, Callender swears that not only did the colonel never shown an inkling of discriminatory behavior, he seemed to have gotten a kick out of messing with racist prejudices. Whenever they arrived at an event in a chauffeured car, Sanders would rush around the car to let Callender out. When someone inevitably protested why the white KFC tycoon would hold the door for a black man, Sanders told them that Callender was his son and that they should mind their own business.
And if that sounds unbelievable, wait until you read this: Colonel Sanders, a planter-cosplaying, mint-julep sippin’ six-iron totin’ good old boy, was never caught saying the n-word in his life. Not once. Not on purpose, not accidentally during a heated Southerner moment, not even when singing along to NWA on the gramophone. There’s only one recorded incident of him uttering an n-word (the French Creole one, for some reason) to a black person and that was to specifically ask if it was still a word “you nice people” preferred in 1975. And when he was told to, holy shit, never ever use that word again, the 85-year-old Southern white high school dropout obliged without a fuss. That doesn’t just make him the wokest fast food founder in the 1920s, it still puts him in the running today.
So what about that previous list of receipts longer than the average KFC order on derby day? Those merely prove that Sanders and his fried chicken were drenched in the Deep South’s deep fried racist culture. He was made a “Kentucky Colonel” not for being a Confederate hero but as a kind of redneck knighthood in recognition for his charitable work. His pet crow was given its Lovecraftianly racist name not by the colonel (the deep-fryer of a billion chickens never named his birds) but by his pro-Jim Crow customers. And Sanders chose his iconic white suit because it hid his many flour stains from breading chicken. It wasn’t his fault the South only has two types of white formalwear and the other one comes with a hood.
Speaking of, despite long suspicions of having ties with the KKK, there’s no record of Sanders attending a single event or donated a single cent. Neither has anyone been able to make it stick that he stole his secret recipe from a black chef; which makes sense since no one has been able to replicate his in 100 years. And about him donating money and publicity to white supremacist governor George Wallace Jr.? A total misunderstanding. You see, Sanders didn’t endorse him over his pro-segregationist stance, he did it because he adored Wallace for his dogged suppression of Hollywood communists, civil rights protestors, and all other threats to American capitalism.
Oh yeah, Colonel Sanders was still 24 pieces of problematic stuffed in a 12-piece-box. So by all means, call him out on every other kind of shitty tycoon he was. Call him a tyrant, a chauvinist, a sex predator, a gun thug, a domestic abuser or the kind of creep who told everyone he was still getting more than his fingers licked at age 83. But let’s also acknowledge the minor miracle that the international symbol of Confederate fast food judged people not on the color of their skin, but by the quality of their fried chicken.
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Top Image: Caesars Pizza, KFC, Wendy’s, Subway