In 1962, Lou Groen was desperate to save his floundering hamburger restaurant, the first McDonald’s in the Cincinnati area.
His problem: The clientele was heavily Catholic. Back then, most Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, not just during Lent, a 40-day period of repentance that begins this week with Ash Wednesday.
His solution: He created a sandwich that would eventually be consumed at a rate of 300 million a year – the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.
“Frisch’s (the local Big Boy chain) dominated the market, and they had a very good fish sandwich,” recalled Groen, now 89. “I was struggling. The crew was my wife, myself, and a man named George. I did repairs, swept floors, you name it.
“But that area was 87 percent Catholic. On Fridays we only took in about $75 a day,” said Groen, a Catholic himself. “All our customers were going to Frisch’s.
“So I invented my fish sandwich, developed a special batter, made the tartar sauce and took it to headquarters.”
That led to a wager between Groen and McDonald’s chief Ray Kroc, who was preparing his own meatless alternative.
“He called his sandwich the Hula Burger,” Groen said. “It was a cold bun and a slice of pineapple and that was it.
“Ray said to me, “Well, Lou, I’m going to put your fish sandwich on (a menu) for a Friday. But I’m going to put my special sandwich on, too. Whichever sells the most, that’s the one we’ll go with.’
“Friday came and the word came out. I won hands down. I sold 350 fish sandwiches that day. Ray never did tell me how his sandwich did.
“My fish sandwich was the first addition ever to McDonald’s original menu,” he said. “It saved my franchise.”
Photo by Gannett News Service.