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March 11, 2007

Just So Stories: The man who invented the Filet-O-Fish sandwich


Back in 1962, 44-year-old McDonald's franchisee Lou Groen (above, with a picture of his restaurant back in the day) was on the ropes financially.

How he turned the tide and created a sandwich that McDonald's world-wide now sells at a rate of 300 million a year was the subject of Paul Clark's Cincinnati Enquirer story, which appeared in USA Today on February 20, 2007 and follows.

    No fish story: Sandwich saved his McDonald's

    In 1962, Lou Groen was desperate to save his floundering hamburger restaurant, the first McDonald's in the Cincinnati area.

    His problem: His clientele was heavily Roman Catholic. In those days, most Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, as well as during Lent, the 40-day period of repentance that begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

    His solution: He created the Filet-O-Fish — a sandwich that saved his restaurant and eventually would be consumed at a rate of 300 million a year.

    "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 (where his restaurant was located) was 87% 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 had his own meatless idea.

    "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."

    But the chain made Groen modify the fish recipe.

    "I wanted halibut originally," Groen said. "I was paying $2 a pound for halibut. That sandwich cost me 30 cents apiece to make. They told me it had to sell for 25 cents. I had to fall back on Atlantic cod, a whitefish, and I added a slice of cheese. But my halibut sandwich far outshines that one."

    Groen wasn't complaining. "My fish sandwich was the first addition ever to McDonald's original menu," he said. "It saved my franchise."

    And fed it. By the time he sold his franchise in 1986, Groen owned 43 McDonald's restaurants in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, about half the number in the region today.

    But his prosperity didn't include a slice of Filet-O-Fish's national sales.

    "Not a penny," he said. "I made my money by selling the product and being the best operator I could."

    Charles Faulks, operations director for McDonald's Ohio Region, called Groen's contributions legendary. "Lou exemplified Ray Kroc's philosophy that you can succeed if you believe in your brand, treat your people right and give back to your community."

    Groen entered the fast-food business in 1958. One day, while working in his father-in-law's Cincinnati restaurant, Groen was leafing through Restaurant Management magazine when he spotted a couple of advertisements for franchise opportunities.

    "They were tiny little ads," he said. "One was for McDonald's 15-cent hamburgers. The other was for Beverly Osborne Chicken Delight. I said to my wife, 'If we do this, we'll be eating a lot of these. Would you rather eat hamburgers or chicken?'

    "She picked hamburgers."

    When Groen answered the ad, he was told that $950 would buy him exclusive McDonald's franchise rights in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and parts of Pennsylvania. "But I didn't have $950," he said.

    So he invested a couple of hundred dollars in a district franchise that included Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. He opened his first store in 1959.

    So when was the last time he ate a Filet-O-Fish?

    "It's been a while," he said. "I broke my leg last year, and at age 89 I don't get out much. But I do love that sandwich."

March 11, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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When did they decide to stop calling them burgers and start calling them sandwiches? To me, a sandwich is something made with bread and a burger is anything McDonald's formerly called a sandwich

Posted by: David | Mar 12, 2007 9:06:41 AM

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