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5 Times Franchisees Created Iconic Fast Food Menu Staples

From the Big Mac to the $5 Footlong, franchise owners have come up with some ingenious promotions and products that have changed the landscape of the QSR industry.

While most major franchise brands leave the marketing and menu creation to the corporate team, smart franchisors looking for menu innovation can tap into an incredibly valuable asset: the creativity of franchisees.

Franchisees are the eyes and ears of the franchise operation, and by being in the restaurant day-in and day-out, they have a prime understanding of what customers want. There is perhaps no better example of this than the history of food service franchisees creating iconic menu staples over the years, particularly in the QSR segment.

Here are a few examples of legendary food items and promotions invented by franchise owners.

McDonald’s Big Mac

In 1967, McDonald’s franchisee Jim Delligatti reached out to the corporate team and asked if he could broaden his menu and sell sweet rolls and doughnuts to his customers. They obliged, and with that newfound freedom, Delligatti decided to get creative with the burgers he was selling as well. He put two burger patties on a double-decker bun with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions and started serving it at his Uniontown, Pennsylvania McDonald's for 45 cents.

By the next year, the popular menu item, now named the Big Mac, was sold at every McDonald’s location across the country and accounted for 19% of the chain’s total systemwide sales. Since then, the Big Mac has become arguably the most iconic burger in not only the chain’s history but the entire fast food industry. McDonald’s honors Delligatti’s achievements with a picture in the lobby of the brand’s Chicago headquarters. 

The Egg McMuffin and Dollar Menu

One morning in 1972, Herb Peterson, the multi-unit McDonald’s operator based in California, put egg, cheese and a slice of ham between an English muffin when he was craving eggs benedict. Peterson brought his new culinary invention — named the Egg McMuffin — to McDonald’s Chairman Ray Croc. Needless to say, Croc loved the idea and the Egg McMuffin would later become a centerpiece of McDonald’s new breakfast menu. Since then, breakfast has become a key daypart for McDonald’s, bringing in more than a quarter of the chain’s domestic sales annually. 

The Big Mac and Egg McMuffin aren’t the only menu staples created by McDonald’s franchise owners. Others include the Filet O-Fish, the Double Quarter Pounder, the McFlurry, the Shamrock Shake and Breakfast Burritos. 

Besides having the input of a large number of franchisees, McDonald’s also had two dozen local market cooperatives, where owners could share best practices at the time. Now-famous promotions such as the Dollar Menu and $1 Any Size drinks started as local campaigns.

Subway’s $5 Footlong

Today, Subway is the world’s largest fast food chain with 41,600 stores worldwide, all of which are franchisee-operated. Back in the late-90’s and early-2000’s when Subway’s growth was really heating up, the brand made a point of encouraging operators to come up with their own promotional ideas. This policy resulted in some of the industry’s most successful marketing campaigns and undoubtedly fueled the brand’s rocket to the top.

Subway franchisee Stuart Frankel created the chain’s iconic $5 Footlong marketing campaign after looking for a way to improve weekend business at one of his Florida locations. The corporate team ran with it, creating a $30 billion campaign that helped establish Subway as a leader in the QSR industry. The promotion has since become a point of contention as franchisees say the margins are too thin. Frankel himself actually denounced the campaign when the chain tried to revitalize it in 2017, saying that keeping a promotion like that for too long “risks damaging consumers’ willingness to pay full price for the subs.”

The KFC Bucket

KFC’s very first franchisee, Pete Harman, was the brains behind the chain’s now-notorious bucket of chicken. As the story goes, KFC founder Harland Sanders called Harman in 1957 and suggested he buy 500 paper buckets another operator bought from a traveling salesman.

Harman took Sanders up on his offer, filling each bucket with 14 pieces of chicken, five rolls and a pint of gravy. Since then, the red-and-white bucket has come to define the fried chicken chain, with Sanders’ face a universally recognized image of the brand. 

Dairy Queen*’s Blizzard

Dairy Queen’s Blizzard is another menu item created in a franchise as opposed to in the boardroom. The Missouri-based Dairy Queen operator, Samuel Temperato, introduced the idea of whipping the chain’s soft-serve with candy and other mix-ins.

Temperato took credit for bringing the Blizzard to Dairy Queen's senior executives and currently holds a patent on the Blizzard machine, but he wanted the world to know he was not the Blizzard's inventor. Instead, Temperato said the Blizzard actually came from a local competitor, with Temperato borrowing the idea and bringing it to DQ corporate. The Blizzard was rolled out nationally in 1985 and quickly became the chain’s most popular item. 

These stories offer a great lesson in why franchisors need to create an open line of dialogue with franchisees, encourage creativity and pay attention to what is working at the store level. Some franchisee out there may be on the cusp of inventing the world’s next Big Mac — wouldn’t it be a shame if that idea went to waste?

*This brand is a paid partner of 1851 Franchise. For more information on paid partnerships please click here.