Fish on Fridays, McDonald’s and Catholics…The birth of Filet-O-Fish.

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After eating my Good Friday dinner at the local Red Lobster I once again spoke with friends and family about the origin of Catholics eating fish on Friday. I immediately went to the web of course to look for the origin of our custom but found this story about Fish on Fridays, McDonald’s and Catholics instead.

In 1962, Lou Groen was desperate to save his floundering hamburger restaurant, the first McDonald’s in the Cincinnati area.

His problem: His clientele was heavily Roman Catholic. In those days, most Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, as well as during Lent, the 40-day period of repentance that begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

His solution: He created the Filet-O-Fish — a sandwich that saved his restaurant and eventually would be consumed at a rate of 300 million a year.

“Frisch’s (the local Big Boy chain) dominated the market, and they had a very good fish sandwich,” recalled Groen, now 89.

“I was struggling. The crew was my wife, myself and a man named George. I did repairs, swept floors, you name it. “But that area (where his restaurant was located) was 87% Catholic. On Fridays we only took in about $75 a day,” said Groen, a Catholic himself. “All our customers were going to Frisch’s.

“So I invented my fish sandwich, developed a special batter, made the tartar sauce and took it to headquarters.” That led to a wager between Groen and McDonald’s chief Ray Kroc, who had his own meatless idea.

“He called his sandwich the Hula Burger,” Groen said. “It was a cold bun and a slice of pineapple and that was it. “Ray said to me, ‘Well, Lou, I’m going to put your fish sandwich on (a menu) for a Friday. But I’m going to put my special sandwich on, too. Whichever sells the most, that’s the one we’ll go with.’

“Friday came and the word came out. I won hands down. I sold 350 fish sandwiches that day. Ray never did tell me how his sandwich did.” But the chain made Groen modify the fish recipe.

“I wanted halibut originally,” Groen said. “I was paying $2 a pound for halibut. That sandwich cost me 30 cents apiece to make. They told me it had to sell for 25 cents. I had to fall back on Atlantic cod, a whitefish, and I added a slice of cheese. But my halibut sandwich far outshines that one.”

Groen wasn’t complaining. “My fish sandwich was the first addition ever to McDonald’s original menu,” he said. “It saved my franchise.”

And fed it. By the time he sold his franchise in 1986, Groen owned 43 McDonald’s restaurants in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, about half the number in the region today.

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