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One on One: Lou Groen

Filet-O-Fish creator, former McDonald's franchise, Cincinnati

By Steven Hedlund
April 01, 2007

"It was a delicious sandwich. So I took it to Chicago to Ray Kroc. He said, ‘I don’t want your fish. It’s going to stink up my restaurant.’ But I was persistent."

 

Lou Groen is a true entrepreneur. He's diligent, ambitious, competitive, sharp and, above all, persistent. This last characteristic saved his beleaguered McDonald's franchise, Cincinnati's first, and gave the iconic fast-food chain the first addition to its original menu.
 It was 1962 and Groen's three-year-old McDonald's restaurant was ailing, especially on Fridays. The bulk of Groen's clientele was Catholic who observed the fish-on-Fridays tradition by dining at his competitor's restaurant, Frisch's Big Boy. So Groen, also a Catholic, rolled up his sleeves and created a fried-halibut sandwich. He delivered his invention to Ray Kroc, the father of McDonald's, who initially scoffed at it. But Groen was persistent, eventually garnering Kroc's approval.

 

HEDLUND: What does your ambition stem from?

GROEN: I come from a broken home. When I was in my teens I was out on the streets. I had to fend for myself. I started out working as a bartender in Kentucky. The mafia was there - gambling, prostitutes, the whole nine yards. But I never got mixed up in that. Eventually I landed a job with Federated Department Stores. The manager there took a liking to me because I had a burning ambition. I was supposed to be there at 8 in the morning and I was there at 7:30. I was supposed to quit at 5 [at night] and I was there until 5:30 or 6.

 

Why did you decide to open a McDonald's franchise?

I managed a restaurant right in the heart of Cincinnati. I worked 365 days a year. I never had a day off. I was burning with ambition to make that restaurant a success. I was just married at the time. [My wife and I] were sitting at the table one evening and I opened a restaurant-management magazine. I saw an ad in there for [McDonald's] 15-cent hamburgers and Beverly Osborne Chicken Delight. I said to my wife, "Mary, what would you rather do - eat hamburgers or chicken?" And she said, "I'd prefer hamburgers."

I was president of the [Greater Cincinnati] Restaurant Association at the time, and they paid my way to Chicago to go to the National Restaurant [Association] convention. As I was walking through the show, I ran into Ray Kroc in front of a booth. He called me over and said, "Where are you from?" I told him from Cincinnati and he said, "I'd like to show you my merchandise." He was selling multi-mixers that made six milkshakes at once. I asked, "How's your business?" He said, "It's pretty good, but I'm also in the franchising business and I'm selling McDonald's franchises." One thing led to another, and I bought a franchise from him for $950.

 

Was your franchise a success?

I started out with one store in 1959. It was quite a struggle. I opened the restaurant in a rural area of Cincinnati because that was the only piece of property that I could afford. It was literally in the midst of a cornfield. I had my wife, myself and a man by the name of George - that was my crew. I swept the floors, I cleaned the restrooms, I repaired the equipment, I waited on the customers. We were just barely staying alive.

 

How did you come up with the idea for the Filet-O-Fish?

We were only taking in $75 a day on Fridays. I couldn't pay my expenses. I was in a neighborhood [Monfort Heights] that was 87 percent Catholic. [Frisch's Big Boy] was selling a fish sandwich, so all of my customers went there on Fridays.

I had to do something, so I invented a fish sandwich. I used halibut. I developed my own batter and tartar sauce. I cut 2-ounce portions to a sandwich and dipped them in the batter and deep-fried them. It was a delicious sandwich. So I took it to Chicago to Ray Kroc. He said, "I don't want your fish. It's going to stink up my restaurant." But I was persistent. He said, "I'll let you keep your sandwich under one condition - we try it out on Good Friday. I got a sandwich that I'm going to put on the menu. If my sandwich outsells yours, we'll use mine. If your sandwich outsells mine, we'll use yours." I asked, "What's your sandwich?" He said, "It's a Hula Burger." It was a slice of pineapple and a slice of cheese on a cold bun. I looked at the sky and said, "Thank you, dear God." Good Friday came along and I sold 350 sandwiches, and Ray never did tell me how many sandwiches 
he sold.

 

Did you stick with halibut?

Ray wanted me to sell that sandwich for 30 cents, but it costs that much to put out because halibut was $2 a pound at the time. He said, "It's either that or nothing." So I used Icelandic cod. It was a good sandwich, with a slice of cheese on it. It went over like gangbusters. It amounted to about $19 million in revenue at a time when [Kroc] had 66 stores. It was a booming success.

 

Did you ever imagine that the 
Filet-O-Fish would be as popular 
as it is today?

No, I didn't. I started out with a shoestring [budget], and I worked hard.

 

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

 

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