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The world's most famous hamburger was 'invented' near Pittsburgh ...

A Meal Disguised as a Sandwich: The Big Mac
Sign of Uniontown as the home of the Big Mac
Uniontown is proclaimed the home town of the Big Mac in this exhibit at the Big Mac Museum.

A Big Mac in its box

A hamburger built of two 1.6oz beef patties, special “Mac” sauce (akin to Thousand Island dressing), iceberg lettuce, American cheese, pickles, and onions, all served on a three-part sesame seed bun, sounds more like a day’s worth of food than a single sandwich. From modest beginnings as an early McDonald’s franchise owner in the 1960s, Jim Delligatti used persistence and innovation to develop the Big Mac, which first sold for 45 cents. The sandwich was originally test-run in a dozen Delligatti McDonald’s stores around Pittsburgh before being added to the national McDonald’s menu in 1968. The Big Mac is now sold internationally and is one of the company’s signature products.

Michael James Delligatti was born in Uniontown, Fayette County in 1918. Delligatti’s father’s job forced the family to move frequently. He never went to college and started his career working for Isaly’s Dairy, a chain of family-owned dairies and restaurants, in the 1950s. By the mid-50s, Delligatti wanted to open his own restaurant and decided to attend a restaurant show in Chicago in 1956. At the show, a McDonald’s booth caught Delligatti’s attention and led to an invitation to a McDonald’s that had just opened in Illinois. Delligatti discovered if he went with McDonald’s, the money he’d save on paper goods purchased through the company would pay for his franchise fee. 

Photo of Jim Delligatti
Jim Delligatti with a Big Mac as seen in a picture at the Big Mac Museum.  Alan Jalowitz

In 1957, Jim Delligatti opened his first McDonald’s on McKnight Road in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh. He was one of McDonald’s earliest franchise owners; by the 1960s, he was operating a dozen stores in the Pittsburgh area. Delligatti had an exclusive territorial franchise for metropolitan Pittsburgh but was struggling with sub-par store volumes. He decided that the only way to broaden his customer base and increase sales was to add to the McDonald’s menu.

For the next few years, Jim Delligatti spent time and energy to create a new product for the McDonald’s menu. Delligatti used every opportunity to partner with other multi-store franchise owners and McDonald’s top managers and discuss the need to improve the menu to gain sales through a new target market. Delligatti’s eventual idea was to combine two-all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. The special sauce recipe remains a secret, but it is recognized as a variant of Thousand Island dressing. Original names for the burger included “Aristocrat” and “Blue Ribbon Burger.” The name “Big Mac” was created by Esther Glickstein Rose, a 21-year-old Advertising Secretary who worked at McDonald’s Corporate office in Chicago.

Delligatti’s sandwich idea was not wholly his own, however. Bob Wian, the founder of the Big Boy drive-in chain, virtually built his entire franchise around a double-decker sandwich. Delligatti was introduced to this type of sandwich when he managed a Big Boy drive-in in the early 1950s in southern California. When Delligatti started looking for new menu items Wian’s Big Boy sandwich quickly came to mind. Delligatti said that inventing the Big Mac “wasn’t like discovering the light bulb. The bulb was already there. All I did was screw it in the socket.”

One of Delligatti’s obstacles in getting the Big Mac approved for sale was its proposed price of 45 cents—twice that of a regular cheeseburger. It took the support of Ralph Lanphar, a regional manager in Columbus, to obtain corporate permission to test the Big Mac. This permission was limited—Delligatti could only test the sandwich at his Uniontown store, and he was told he had to use the standard McDonald’s bun. When this bun proved far too small for all the contents of the Big Mac, Delligatti ignored management’s requests and ordered a larger, three-piece bun. Within a few months, the new Big Mac was increasing the Uniontown store’s sales by better than 12 percent. The sandwich was a hit.

Due to the success in the Uniontown store, the Big Mac was soon sold in all of Delligatti’s stores. When each of these stores showed significant gains, McDonald’s managers and franchise owners elsewhere looked to Delligatti and his stores for information on his new sandwich. The McDonald’s chain added the Big Mac to other test markets, and when all of them scored 10 percent or better in sales gains, the new product was finally put into nationwide distribution in 1968. It had taken Delligatti nearly two years to the sell the company on the idea.

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1 comment:

  1. I am a huge fan of Big Mac, this is the food I prefer to order when I go to Mcdonald's.

    Wow, I did not know it was invented near Pittsburgh.