Nearly 50 years ago, Michael James “Jim” Dellagatti, a McDonald’s franchisee in Uniontown, Penn., decided that his customers wanted a bigger sandwich.
He slapped together two beef patties, a tangy sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and three layers of sesame seed bun. He called it the Big Mac – and the fast-food sandwich became a big hit in his other 47 stores in Pennsylvania, eventually gaining a spot in the chain’s national menu in 1968.
Delligatti, who died on Monday, was seen as an innovator at the time by pushing initially skeptical McDonald’s corporate headquarters to expand its servings beyond just the simple hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, and shakes that were selling well. The need for change, however, is just as present now, as the fast food chain struggles to maintain its customer base, who are increasingly looking for healthier and specialized options.
"In franchising, there's always this set playbook and you have to follow it. Jim saw an opportunity to go outside the playbook because he knew the customer," Ann Dugan, a former assistant dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business, told the Associated Press. "He persevered and [McDonald's] listened, and the rest is history."
In his lifetime, McDonald's has sold billions of Big Macs in more than 100 countries, with estimations that it was selling 550 million Big Macs a year when the burger turned 40. But in July 2016, a top McDonald’s franchisee wrote in a memo that the Big Mac “has gotten less relevant,” with the number of hamburgers sold at McDonald’s US restaurants staying flat over the past few years, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Customers, especially Millennials, were flocking to places that sold food with higher-quality ingredients, opting for fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread, Chipotle, Shake Shack Inc. and Five Guys Holdings LLC, all of which are growing faster than McDonald’s.
In a bid to catch up with its consumers’ demands, the chain has been experimenting with improving taste by longer toast times so the burgers turn out warmer, and injecting healthier components into its classic menu items.
For instance, the company is removing artificial ingredients from Chicken McNuggets and other products. It is also experimenting with fresh beef instead of frozen beef in some restaurants' burgers, planning to phase out chickens raised with antibiotics, and even entertained adding kale-based items into its menu.
The challenge of these innovations lies in having to maintain quick serving times and low prices while still delivering higher-quality fast food. Some of its competitors, such as Burger King and Wendy’s, face the same problems.
“Customers loved the taste but said, ‘We don’t have 10 minutes,’ ” Alex Williams, an executive in charge of an initiative to speed up drive-through service while creating custom burgers, told The Wall Street Journal.
But the chain store has seen its fair share of innovations, with other franchisees inventing the now-popular Egg McMuffin and the Filet-O-Fish. Delligatti had also introduced the breakfast option – hotcakes and sausages – to McDonald’s, serving the needs of hungry steelworkers returning home early in the morning after their night shifts.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.