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Franchisees are behind some iconic menu items

In franchised brands, operators have created some of the industry’s most well-known products and promotions, from the bacon cheeseburger to fast-food breakfast.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

Dale Mulder was never quite satisfied with beef being the only meat on his cheeseburgers. As a teenager he always asked local restaurants to add bacon whenever he went out for a hamburger. 

When A&W started selling burgers shortly after Mulder bought a franchise location in Lansing, Mich., in 1963, he naturally put a bacon cheeseburger on the menu. “It was more to satisfy my own palate than anybody else’s,” Mulder said.

He did not know it at the time, but Mulder would basically invent the restaurant bacon cheeseburger. It went on to become Mulder’s second best-selling sandwich and the entire system later adopted it. In the years since, bacon has become such a common burger topping that in some restaurants it’s difficult to order a burger without bacon.

In the annals of franchising, one overlooked contribution of franchisees is their impact on the chains’ marketing and menus. Franchisees, rather than marketing professionals at corporate headquarters, have been behind some of the restaurant industry’s most iconic products and marketing campaigns.

Without franchisees, we wouldn’t have things such as $5 sub sandwiches, chicken buckets, fast-food breakfast or the Big Mac. And a blizzard would still be a windy snowstorm.

“We’re on the front lines,” Stuart Frankel, a Subway franchisee who created the chain’s $5 Footlong marketing campaign. “We talk to customers. We see what’s going on. We eat out. We visit other fast-food restaurants. We see what they’re doing.”

Big Macs and Double Quarter Pounders

Jim Delligatti, a McDonald’s franchisee in Uniontown, Pa., created arguably the most iconic burger in the restaurant business when he put two burger patties on a double-decker bun with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions in 1967. One year later the Big Mac was on the chain’s national menu. Today, Delligatti’s picture adorns the lobby of McDonald's Chicago headquarters.

Indeed, if there is a Hall of Fame of franchisee-created menu items, there would be a McDonald’s wing.

A surprising percentage of the company’s core menu was created by franchisees. Operators created the Filet O-Fish, the McFlurry and Breakfast Burritos. Hal Rosen, a Connecticut franchise owner, created the Shamrock Shake in 1967—it has since become a cult hit. The shake makes its annual return to the chain’s menus later this month.

In 1972, Herb Peterson, who operated a half-dozen locations in California, put an egg, cheese and Canadian bacon between an English Muffin. The Egg McMuffin would become a centerpiece of McDonald’s new breakfast rollout. Today, breakfast is more than a quarter of the chain’s domestic sales, or more than $10 billion in U.S. sales annually.

Jim Lewis, a former McDonald’s franchisee in New York City, said the company had an “open” culture in which operators could, and frequently did, contact top executives with ideas—which frequently led to interesting innovations.

“It was still a very, very open, great culture” when I started in 1986, Lewis said. “I was a 30-year-old operator and I could call the CEO and have a conversation with him because he knew who I was. All those guys were a phone call away.”

Lewis took a few liberties himself. At the suggestion of a manager he created the Double Quarter Pounder. “We just sold a ton of them,” Lewis said. He confessed he got into some trouble because he didn’t ask permission, but after tests the sandwich landed on the national menu.

Over the years he also experimented with grinding coffee in the restaurants and later tried a McVeggie burger. “We had an environment where you could experiment a little bit and not get killed,” Lewis said. He added that the number of franchisees, along with the chain’s two dozen local market cooperatives, led to a lot of innovation. Now-famous promotions such as the Dollar Menu and $1 Any Size drinks started in local markets.

These days, he noted, earnings reports and more intense investor demands have led to more centralized decision making and the openness isn’t quite there. “It’s not as easy as it was back then,” Lewis said.

That doesn’t mean franchisees can’t influence product: The Crispy Chicken Sandwich, an upgraded product set to make its national debut later this month, has been pushed hard by the chain’s franchisees.

Marketing prowess

Another wing in the franchisee hall of fame would be occupied by Subway operators. The brand, with thousands of franchisees and a history in which the brand—focused largely on unit growth—gave store owners freedom to test products and marketing ideas.

Similar to McDonald’s, Subway operated with a culture in which some operators routinely contacted the chain’s founder, Fred DeLuca, with their ideas.

A franchisee in Chicago took the story of Jared Fogle’s weight loss to company headquarters, which ultimately led to the wildly successful Jared campaign. They developed some of the chain’s sandwiches, such as the Chicken Teriyaki, as well as the chain’s wraps. A franchisee came up with the idea to add toasters to the chain’s restaurants—a move that helped vanquish Subway’s growing rival in the early 2000s, Quiznos.

Frankel developed the other program that helped beat back Quiznos. In 2003, Frankel was looking to improve business at one of his Florida locations, which did brisk business during the week but little on weekends. “Let’s see what we can do on weekends,” he told a manager. “We’re going to take every Footlong and make it $5. All they have to do is come in with a $5 bill and they’re out.”

Sales were up 16% to 18% on Sundays immediately afterward. Some other operators ultimately caught onto the program. One multi-unit operator escaped bankruptcy in part by offering the promotion at all of his locations. DeLuca ultimately convinced operators to try a temporary campaign for six weeks. “$30 billion in $5 Footlongs later, here we are,” Frankel said.

To be sure, the promotion has become a point of contention between the company and its franchisees and Frankel in late 2017 came out hard against a renewed plan at the time to bring the idea back. “They never gave it up,” he said. “They tried to milk it for years.”

Blizzards and buckets

Without the franchisee, bone-in chicken would still be served in boxes or in bags.

In 1957, Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC, called his first franchisee, Pete Harman, and asked if he wanted to buy 500 paper buckets another operator bought from a traveling salesman, according to the company.

Harman agreed. He filled the buckets with 14 pieces of chicken, five rolls and a pint of gravy. The bucket of chicken would become a massive success, featuring Sanders’ face. It even gets the holiday treatment. The innovation has been replicated by numerous restaurant chains and grocers and others that sell fried chicken.

Wendy’s franchisees, meanwhile, have experimented with that chain’s fries. One operator created “Baconator Fries” with bacon, cheese sauce and shredded cheddar cheese. They did something similar with the chain’s recent Pretzel Pub Bacon Cheeseburger—topping fries with bacon, cheddar cheese and beer cheese sauce.

“As a fundamental ingredient to our culinary development, my team works closely with local franchsiee partners across the country to have our menu reflect the insights and inspiration they gain first-hand in our restaurants, interacting with customers,” John Li, vice president of culinary innovation for the Dublin, Ohio-based chain, said in an email.

Samuel Temperato, a Dairy Queen operator in Missouri, brought an idea for whipping the chain’s soft-serve with candy and other mix-ins—an idea he in turn credited to the St. Louis frozen custard concept owner Ted Drewes. The Blizzard was introduced nationally in 1985 and has since become the chain’s signature item.

In the 1980s, just after Hungry Howie’s started franchising, an operator for the pizza chain started toying with the crust, first by buttering the crust, then by adding things such as sesame seeds.

He brought it to the company, which developed eight different options, and the result gave the still-young pizza chain a point of differentiation against its much larger pizza competitors in its home state of Michigan—Little Caesars and Domino’s.

“We grew up fighting the big boys since day one,” Hungry Howie’s CEO Steve Jackson said. “We thought it would be a little bit of a niche that would differentiate our product.”

Bacon on a burger

The franchising world was a lot less sophisticated when Mulder bought his franchise in 1963. For one thing, A&W was largely just a root beer stand that may or may not have sold hot dogs. The franchise itself didn’t care much what operators sold out of their locations, so long as they got that root beer right.

Once the system began adding fryers to cook burgers, some operators took some liberties. After Mulder’s bacon creation took hold, another franchisee out of Montana created a line of burgers called “The Burger Family,” featuring a larger “Papa Burger,” a “Mama Burger” a “Teen Burger” and a smaller “Baby Burger.” Mulder’s bacon cheeseburger was the Teen Burger in that group.  

“That Burger Family was an independently-owned franchise,” Mulder said. “He went around to franchises across the country and sold that franchise to A&W franchisees. He didn’t charge much. He sold you the packaging. He made money off the packaging.”

Eventually, A&W was sold to United Foods, which decided to give the burgers more direct names—so the Teen Burger became the Bacon Cheeseburger. “There are still A&W franchisees who still think that was a mistake, that we should have kept Burger Family,” Mulder said. “They were probably right.”

Still, the legend of Mulder’s creation lived on, and A&W dubs him the inventor of the Bacon Cheeseburger. Mulder himself is a bit sheepish about it. “Somehow I got credit for inventing that,” he said. “I’m not sure that credit is proper or deserved or undeserved. I think the Internet is responsible for most of them.”

Mulder, meanwhile, still has a role with A&W, having lasted through multiple ownership changes. He was once its CEO. These days, he’s the company’s chairman.  

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