When McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen noticed a drop in sales on Fridays in the predominantly Roman Catholic neighborhood where his store was based, he sought a way to bring in more customers.
It was 1962, and McDonald’s was a brand primarily serving hamburgers, an item Catholic customers couldn’t consume in observance of Lent. In response, Groen put together a fish sandwich, but it required a more complicated cooking process than other items and the company wasn’t initially sold on offering it.
McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc had plans for what he called the Hula Burger—a slice of grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun—and made a deal with Groen that whichever sandwich sold the most on a Friday would be added to the permanent menu. Kroc was reportedly so confident in the Hula Burger that he made a side bet with employee Fred Turner that the burger would outsell the fish sandwich and the loser would buy the winner a new suit.
Turner got a new suit, and Groen got the Filet-O-Fish added to the permanent menu as a 29-cent item and the first non-hamburger option.
Since 1962, the Filet-O-Fish hasn’t changed much. It’s a steamed bun, tartar sauce, half of a slice of cheese, and a fish filet. McDonald’s has used other varieties of fish, such as halibut and cod, but now uses wild-caught, sustainable Alaskan pollock.
The sandwich is served internationally with regional twists, such as with wasabi in certain Asia locations and an Old Bay Seasoning tartar sauce in select U.S. restaurants on the East Coast. And even though it’s served year-round, it’s still popular during Lent. In 2016, 25 percent of annual sales of the sandwich came during that time.
McDonald’s company historian Mike Bullington says many of the company’s staple menu items have originated from franchisee ideas, such as the Big Mac, Egg McMuffin, hot apple pie, and Shamrock Shake. “These are all owner-operators who realized there was a need for something customers wanted and they developed a product, innovated, and brought it all to market,” he says.
And as the sandwich enters what will potentially be its next 55 years, Bullington says he believes it will be viewed with the same reverence.
“They’re still going to enjoy the Filet-O-Fish, I’m sure, because it’s been a mainstay for our customers this entire time,” Bullington says. “But as customers’ taste changes, [McDonald’s] will come up with some great ways to serve it and cater to them.”
By Alex Dixon