A West Virginian gave McDonald’s – and the world – the big burger
CHARLESTON – State lawmakers this year chewed over the idea of naming the pepperoni roll West Virginia’s”official food,” but some say a McDonald’s burger known the world over stacks up as a better choice.
[cleeng_content id="326767807" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]The Big Mac, after all, was created by a West Virginian: Jim Delligatti, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Fairmont and would go on to create the iconic sandwich in 1967.
As an early McDonald’s franchise owner, Delligatti recalls how he worked with Ray Kroc, the founder of the fast food chain.
An innovator in myriad ways, Kroc originally intended to keep the McDonald’s menu basic, with regular-size hamburgers and cheeseburgers, fries, sodas and shakes, Delligatti remembers in an interview.
But in 1962, Cincinnati franchisee Lou Groen persuaded Kroc to OK the Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Delligatti had an idea of his own: for a “giant” double-decker sandwich clearly designed for those with supersized appetites, not for kids.
“I felt our customers would like to have a big sandwich,” explains Delligatti, who owned nearly 50 McDonald’s locations before he retired. “I thought [the Big Mac] would be very good, very big.”
For Delligatti, who served in the infantry in France during World War II before returning to operate drive-in restaurants and then join in with Kroc, the drive to succeed was always a part of his thinking.
“You have to have a desire to get ahead,” he said. “A lot of people talk a good game but don’t do anything. I never battled that.”
Now 94, Delligatti decades ago sold back to the McDonald’s corporation dozens of his Pennsylvania franchises. He now enjoys going to Steelers games, and traveling with family to Florida, leaving the business side of things to his son Michael Delligatti and several grandsons, who together operate a dozen McDonald’s in and around Pittsburgh.
He also enjoys his status as a living piece of McDonald’s history.
In the late 1960s, after McDonalds bigwigs gave Delligatti’s big sandwich idea the green light – with the stipulation that he could not use any ingredient not already in the kitchen – the Uniontown MickeyD’s introduced the iconic concoction.
Originally marketed as “the Big Mac Super Sandwich,” Delligatti’s creation sold for 45 cents and became a big hit immediately in Uniontown. Soon after, the Big Mac was boosting sales at Delligatti’s other McDonald’s locations across the Pittsburgh region.
The following year, the Big Mac joined McDonald’s menus nationwide – quickly becoming one of the chain’s top sellers.
For its national debut, slogans for the Big Mac included “A Meal Disguised as a Sandwich” and “Open wide and say Ahhhh!” An early TV commercial employed a diagram to point out all the ingredients, as if the Big Mac were a complex, multistory building.
And then in 1974, the Big Mac’s best-known promotion made its way to TV, with an announcer and later average McDonald’s customers on the street rushing to list all the mega-sandwich’s ingredients: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame-seed bun.
Wisconsin resident Donald A. Gorske became a Big Mac enthusiast around this time. Now listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having eaten more than 26,000 Big Macs from McDonald’s, he had his first as a high-schooler, on the very day he got his driver’s license.
For lunch that mid-May day in 1972, he says he bought and ate three Big Macs and then returned to the restaurant twice more before it closed, finishing with a daily total of nine of the sandwiches.
Though Gorske hasn’t continued at that pace, he has eaten at least one Big Mac almost every day in all the years since. He’s featured in “Super Size Me,” the award-winning 2004 documentary starring West Virginia native Morgan Spurlock, who famously saw his blood pressure skyrocket after attempting to eat at McDonald’s three meals a day for a month.
The Delligattis aren’t fans of Spurlock. They also reject the notion that the advent of the 550-calorie Big Mac played any part in kicking off the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Says Michael Delligatti: “I would bet that if you ate anything every day, three times a day, something bad would happen to you. You do have to eat responsibly.”
Instead, Michael sees his father’s Big Mac legacy as something to celebrate.
Since 2007, he’s operated a North Huntingdon, Pa., McDonald’s that doubles as a Big Mac Museum. Among its highlights: a statue of his dad holding his creation; a Big Mac replica that measures 14 feet tall and 12 feet wide; interactive exhibits that relay the history and other tidbits about the Big Mac; and hundreds of historic artifacts.
There’s no arguing the Big Mac has made a big impact. Each year in the United States alone, McDonald’s sells some 550 million Big Macs. The sandwich also is on the menu in more than 100 nations across the world. There have been dozens of international spinoffs, including the Mega Mac (with four patties and three slices of American cheese) and, in India where eating beef is a cultural no-no, the Maharaja Mac, served with chicken, not cow.
But McDonald’s still is looking to amp up the Big Mac’s reach.
A particular emphasis these days is reaching teenage customers. Many McD’s regulars remember when the Big Mac reigned as a pop-culture powerhouse, but those folks are older than McDonald’s core demographic. For teens today, the Big Mac is simply another sandwich on the chain’s permanent menu.
So earlier this year, the company began work with Translation, Steve Stoute’s multicultural, “youth vibe” ad agency that’s a frequent collaborator with Jay-Z, Lady Gaga and other hip stars. For McDonald’s, Translation will create a series of ads aimed at reintroducing the Big Mac to America’s young consumers, to again make the Big Mac a focal point for the brand.
It’s not clear if Delligatti himself might be part of that ad mix. Over the years, he’s been the subject of numerous TV news segments, print articles and even a TV commercial timed for the Big Mac’s 40th birthday.
That 2008 ad featured a boy named Jimmy in a black-and-white flashback. The youngster daydreams of a bigger, better hamburger.
The commercial wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Growing up in Fairmont, Delligatti said he always believed he’d find a way to make his mark.
“I’d spend my last 50 cents if I needed a shoeshine,” he said. “I wanted to look good. I always felt that I was going to be a success at doing something.
“There were no doubts in my mind.”