Last week I was flipping through my diocesan newspaper when I came upon an ad for McDonald’s: “What are you doing Friday night?” it read. “What the heck (I gave up cursing for Lent) is McDonald’s doing advertising in a Catholic paper during Lent!” I thought, and then I noticed it was an ad for their Filet-O-Fish Sandwich.
I thought that was very good marketing-cleverly timed to build affinity-so I decided to investigate and find out more.
In 1962, a man named Lou Groen was desperate to save his floundering hamburger restaurant, the first McDonald’s in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. His problem: his customer base was heavily Roman Catholic. Back then, most Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, as well as during Lent.
“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 CEO 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 one 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 helped it to grow. By the time Groen sold his franchise in 1986, he owned 43 McDonald’s restaurants in Greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, about half the number in the region today.
About 23% of all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are bought during Lent. Lou Groen invented the Filet-O-Fish to attract Catholics, but it’s popular among Jews and Muslims whose dietary observances prohibit other McDonald’s fare.