The Genius Behind the Big Mac

Jim Delligatti—who created the signature sandwich for McDonald’s—died last week. He never got rich from his wildly successful invention.

A Big Mac from McDonald's
Diether Endlicher / AP

In the first season of the HBO series The Wire, Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) and D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.) hold an extended debate about invention of the Chicken McNugget. With sanguine wonder, Wallace imagines the wealth and fame rightly bestowed on the genius inventor. But the wizened D’Angelo pours cold water on his fantasy. “The man who invented them things just some sad-ass down at the basement of McDonald's thinking up some shit to make money for the real players,” he says.

D’Angelo wasn’t too far off when it comes to McDonald’s origin stories. While the McNugget was developed internally by Rene Arend—a chef who had served Hollywood stars and European royalty alike before McDonald’s hired him—the birth of the Big Mac is a bit closer to D’Angelo’s version of the story. There’s no way to overstate the insane reach and impact of the Big Mac, 550 million of which are eaten each year in the United States and which appears—in some form or another—on McDonald’s menus in six continents. Last week, Jim Delligatti, a McDonald’s franchisee and the inventor of the vaunted sandwich, passed away at the age of 98.

In a nod to their ubiquity, several obituaries noted The Big Mac Index, which The Economist introduced 30 years ago. The index serves as “a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level,” by tracking the cost of a Big Mac around the globe. But for all these triumphs, Delligatti never enjoyed much fame or celebrity in the wake of his creation. In fact, he constantly battled the misconception that the world’s best-selling sandwich had made him billions. “Everybody thinks I did,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in 2007. “But no way. All I got was a plaque.”

The genius of the Big Mac was that it fulfilled a serious need for the company, which didn’t have a signature sandwich to compete with the Whopper, Burger King’s titanic and successful sandwich. In 1967, Delligatti was given approval by the corporation to pursue the sandwich so long as he used ingredients already found in a McDonald’s kitchen. According to legend, he cheated the arrangement by getting larger buns from a local baker, the first-ever sesame seed-bedecked buns in franchise history. Delligatti devised the double-decker conceit and tinkered to perfect the special sauce. After introducing the item under a few different names across his several restaurants, Delligatti’s franchises went from being some of the lowest-grossing outfits in the McDonald’s system to the very highest. The Big Mac went national in 1968 and would later be immortalized in jingle form—“two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”

The fact that McDonald’s was able to rake in money from Deligatti’s invention, while the creator only scored profits in the form of better restaurant sales may stink of scandal. But that’s  the story behind many of  McDonald’s signature items. "Nobody could argue with the success of menu additions such as the Filet-o-Fish, the Big Mac, Hot Apple Pie, and Egg McMuffin,” McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc wrote in his autobiography. “The most interesting thing to me about these items is that each evolved from an idea of one of our operators. So the company has benefited from the ingenuity of its small businessmen while they were being helped by the system’s image and cooperative advertising muscle.” In other words, franchisees would get a little bit creative and if an item passed muster with company executives, the company turned it into an item that could be bought practically anywhere in the country.

Nearly 50 years later, the oleaginous excess and two-handed indulgence that once made the Big Mac such a culinary icon is now associated with its undoing. Just this week, the company’s executives reaffirmed that—contrary to occasional rumors—the Big Mac “is here to stay.” That’s not to say there won’t be changes. This winter, as McDonald’s continues the battle to turn its fortunes around, the company will release two limited-time variations of the Big Mac for these polarizing times: a Grand Mac, which will feature bigger patties, and the Mac Jr., which will ditch the second patty and the middle bun.

Deligatti, who reportedly ate at least one Big Mac a week, would probably bristle at such perversions. And though the gears of corporate capitalism may have kept him from collecting billions, as Wallace put it, “He still had the idea, though.”