Longtime KFC, Wendy's franchisee Joseph Desmond dies

FRESNO Calif. Joseph Francis Desmond, one of the first franchisees of KFC and Wendy's and a past president of the California Restaurant Association, died Aug. 19 of natural causes at age 86.

When Desmond died at his home here, his JEM Management Corp. of Fresno operated 22 Wendy's restaurants, 15 KFC outlets and a 1,600-acre walnut farm. Though a successful Central Valley restaurateur for more than five decades, the World War II Marine Corps veteran may be best known outside his home region for his company's suffering in the infamous Wendy's finger fraud, in which a patron said she had found a fingertip in her chili.

It was at a JEM-managed Wendy's in San Jose, Calif., that Anna Ayala claimed on March 22, 2005, to have found the piece of a severed finger. The claim generated headlines around the world and touched off a sales slump at that restaurant and across much of the Wendy's system. Ayala and her husband, Jaime Plascencia, both of Las Vegas, were later arrested and charged with planting the fingertip to extort money from Wendy's. Both subsequently pleaded guilty to the crime and were sentenced to prison.

After Ayala's arrest, Desmond publicly thanked the law enforcement agencies involved and his company's employees, some of whom, he noted, suffered lost wages because “we had to cut hours because business was down so badly.” He ended his comments during a press conference by asking listeners to “please come back to Wendy's because we do serve wonderful hamburgers and salads.”

JEM and family representatives said Desmond met “Colonel” Harland D. Sanders in 1959. Desmond, owner at the time of Uncle John's Pancake House in Fresno, became one of first 10 licensees of Sanders' operation, which grew into Kentucky Fried Chicken, now known as KFC. Desmond later received the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers franchise west of the Mississippi and in 1990 was honored nationally by the chain as the recipient of the Dave Thomas Founder's Award, his acquaintances said.

“Joe was a great inspiration to many people's lives,” said JEM vice president Rick Braden. “He always wanted the right thing for the customer: the best restaurants, the best hospitality.”

Desmond was a native of New Jersey who began working in restaurants at age 15 after his widowed mother moved her family to California. He is survived by two daughters, a sister, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.