The Filet-O-Fish might be one of the last things you think of when it comes to a fast food restaurant famous for its burgers, fries, and McNuggets. But there’s a valid reason McDonald’s keeps the fried fish sandwich on its menu, and it won’t be going away anytime soon.
To learn about the Filet-O-Fish’s place on the menu, we need to turn our attention to Lou Groen, who’d been kicked out of his home at age 17 and had spent decades working odd jobs before finally opening his own place and working his way to becoming president of Cincinnati Restaurant Group. That position helped him get in touch with Ray Kroc, who launched McDonald’s as a powerhouse corporation, and Kroc helped Groen open his own franchise. Groen opened the doors to the Cincinnati, Ohio area’s first McDonald’s in 1959.
Business seemed promising, but there was one major hurdle for Groen: For most restaurants, weekends, starting on Friday nights, bring the biggest profits. But in 1962, his McDonald’s was in an area that was 87 percent Catholic in a time when most Catholics wouldn’t eat meat on Fridays, with the exception of fish. The burger-joint wasn’t concerned with providing the healthy options that they now have, so that meant that sales actually plummeted at what should have been their busiest time, due to the lack of veggie-friendly options.
Groen needed to draw in customers somehow, and he noticed that the American chain, Big Boy restaurants, seemed to have cracked the Friday code in greater Cincinnati with a novelty food item. That chain happened to serve a fish sandwich, so Groen wondered if seafood might be his saving grace, too.
He introduced the idea of a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce to Kroc, who scoffed. Kroc had his own idea: A meatless “Hula Burger” of pineapple and cheese on a bun (sounds bad, right? not nearly as bad as these novelty fast food items).
Kroc agreed to put both the halibut and “Hula” sandwiches on the menu one Friday to see which sold more. About 350 fish sandwiches were sold that fateful day, and though Kroc wouldn’t reveal how many customers bought Hula Burgers, he did admit that Groen had won the bet. With that, the “Hula Burger” kicked the McBucket, and became the inaugural item on a long list of embarrassing McDonald’s Menu flops.
Once he discovered that 350 of his sandwiches had sold, Groen was allowed to move forward with his fish idea. However, Kroc wanted to bring the price down to 25 cents. Considering each halibut sandwich cost 30 cents to make, the two men had to revise the recipe, using cod because it was a cheaper fish, and adding a slice of cheese for flavor. It might not have been as good as his halibut version, but his customers weren’t complaining. Friday business revved up, and Groen’s restaurant survived, unlike these failed food brands.
The Filet-O-Fish recipe has taken some new turns since the 1960s, now using sustainable Alaskan Pollock, but it seems to be a permanent item on the McDonald’s menu as one of the only pescatarian-friendly options.
And even though meat-free Fridays aren’t practiced by most Catholics year-round, the fish option still seems to be important for religious customers. About a quarter of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sales are in the spring during Lent, when many Catholics choose not to eat land- or air-based meats, spokeswoman Becca Hary told USA Today. So when March or April rolls around, don’t be surprised if you hear hungry customers begging McDonald’s to “gimme that Filet-O-Fish.” Next, learn 75 mind-blowing facts about McDonald’s.