When fast food first began to capture the imagination of the American public, there was one menu item leading the charge. Easy to prepare, package and transport, the hamburger helped restaurants everywhere rapidly expand and serve food more simply and effectively than ever.
By the 1960s, business was booming. Burger King and McDonald’s were already well established household names and were spreading the fast food message across the world. However, for all their success, it was becoming increasingly clear that there were limitations to the current business model. The traditional hamburger, though undeniably popular, was never going to appeal to every market. A new creative approach was needed to take fast food to the next level.
In 1961, McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen had a problem. His Cincinnati-based business, though popular with the local townspeople, was up against a major obstacle that no amount of beef could beat. As a majority Catholic community, a huge number of Groen’s potential customers were barred from eating meat on Fridays. This meant that, for one day every week, the restaurant was ominously quiet.
According to Groen’s son Paul, the franchise was in dire straits. The Cincinnati market was increasingly saturated with a wealth of hamburger alternatives, meaning that a restaurant needed to be constantly busy just to break even. Groen began to cast his eye around for possible solutions to this conundrum.
One local business in particular caught his attention. mid-level mid-western burger chain Frisch’s Big Boy had found a way to remain popular despite the meaty objections of the Christians. Their solution was simple. Serve up a fish sandwich on Fridays and keep the Catholics coming. Inspired by Frisch’s fishy offering, Groen set about creating his own alternative sandwich. Before the end of the year, he had come up with a prototype - the world’s first Filet-o-Fish.
Unfortunately for, Groen, another major hurdle stood in his way. Despite knowing that fish was the only way to save his ailing business, he found that McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc absolutely hated the idea. Upon hearing the proposal for a seafood substitute for traditional beef, Kroc exclaimed, “Hell no! I don't care if the Pope himself comes to Cincinnati. He can eat hamburgers like everybody else. We are not going to stink up our restaurants with any of your damned fish.”
Fortunately for Groen, McDonald’s executives Fred Turner and Nick Karos disagreed with their boss’ rather blunt assessment. Recognising that this was a way to potentially crack an entirely new market, the two persuaded Kroc to give the sandwich a second chance. Grudgingly, he agreed, on the condition that it pass a very specific test.
It turned out that Kroc had been secretly working on his own hamburger replacement for some time. His sandwich, free from the fish he clearly found so objectionable, was christened “The Hula”. Featuring two slices of grilled pineapple topped with a square of melted cheese, the slightly odd snack was inspired by a recent holiday to Hawaii.
In order to give Filet-o-Fish his blessing, Kroc demanded a competition. He proposed that the two sandwiches go head to head in a sales contest that would dictate which of them would get a nationwide release. Battle lines were drawn on Good Friday, 1962. The doors opened. Customers poured in. According to food historian Dann Woellert, 350 people bought the new fish sandwich. 6 bought Kroc’s. The rest is history.
Today, it’s impossible to imagine a McDonald’s menu free from their signature fish sandwich. Popular with everyone from priests to presidents, the Filet-O-Fish has continually defied expectations and remained a mainstay of the McDonald’s brand. Despite its undeniable success, it’s worth remembering how close we came to never tasting it.