Discover more from The Retrologist by Rolando Pujol
Let's explore the Big Mac Museum, a tribute to the creator of the McDonald's menu icon
On the Lincoln Highway near Pittsburgh, you will find the world's biggest Big Mac -- and the story of the man who cooked up the big idea.
After serving in World War II, Pittsburgh-area native Jim Delligatti hitchhiked his way to California, walking right into the post-war Southern California fast-food boom. He picked up work at drive-in restaurants and even managed a Bob’s Big Boy – famous for its double-decker hamburger with a special sauce.
More on that later.
He eventually returned to western Pennsylvania, and started his own drive-in with a friend just outside Pittsburgh.
Delligatti was a restless, ambitious soul, as so many members of “The Greatest Generation” were, and was looking for something else, something, well, big. Like the old slogan went, he “looked for the Golden Arches” and found fame and fortune by doing so.
At a 1955 restaurant convention in Chicago, Delligatti met Ray Kroc, who had begun franchising McDonald’s nationwide. Kroc allowed Delligatti to open the first-ever McDonald’s in western Pennsylvania, on McKnight Road in Ross Township, two years later.
Delligatti would in time operate 48 McDonald’s restaurants, but it was what he cooked up in 1965 at the McKnight Road store that made him a household name in fast-food circles and earned him the privilege of having a museum named after his creation.
Michael James “Jim” Delligatti was the inventor of the Big Mac.
Delligatti knew customers wanted a bigger burger, and competitors were offering them. McDonald’s, however, was satisfied with its basic slate of offerings – traditional burgers, fries, shakes and the like.
But the resistant corporation finally relented and let Delligatti move ahead with his Big Mac, so long as he used McDonald’s ingredients. He deviated in one key way, getting his sesame-seed bun – with that key middle slice – from an area bakery.
The Big Mac – you know, “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun” – was introduced as a test in his Uniontown restaurant on April 22, 1967, selling for 45 cents versus 18 cents for a traditional burger. He gave the people what they wanted, and word got around, and fast. The Big Mac went national the next year and by 1969 was delivering almost 20% of McDonald’s sales.
His recipe, of course, was original to McDonald’s but was hardly the first double-decker hamburger, something he was quick to admit. There was, for instance, that famous double-decker burger from Bob’s Big Boy, where he once worked, which in the Pittsburgh area was then associated with Eat’n Park.
But don’t let that detract from Delligatti’s achievement. He successfully pushed for something that corporate didn’t want, and ended up creating an iconic American meal that is served around the world.
As Delligatti said in the 1986 book “McDonald’s: Behind the Arches,” a quote which is referenced in his New York Times obituary:
“It wasn’t like discovering the light bulb. The bulb was already there. All I did was screw it in the socket.”
Sure enough, there is a sign of a light bulb featuring a Big Mac at the museum.
For his ingenious job of screwing in that light bulb, Delligatti did not get rich, though he did get a plaque for his efforts.
However, he could claim to be in that elite group of humans who created something that almost everyone has at some point partaken in, praised, or pilloried. Everybody’s heard of the Big Mac. (If the Big Mac wasn’t enough, Delligatti led the way in serving hotcakes for breakfast at McDonald’s!)
Delligatti lived to age 98, and would consume his famous creation once a week. Could a weekly Big Mac be the secret to pushing the century mark? I, for one, will not try that experiment.
But I was happy to visit the Big Mac Museum this past weekend, which the Delligattis opened in August 2007 at a working store in North Huntington, Pennsylvania.
The restaurant is home to a slick historical exhibit, a bronze bust of Delligatti, and the world’s biggest Big Mac – a whopping 14 feet tall and 12 feet wide – housed in the PlayPlace, which, true to the contrarian spirit celebrated here, they call a Play Land. (Oh, and maybe “whopping” isn’t the right word here … there is a Burger King, Home of the Whopper, just across the Lincoln Highway!)
Delligatti loved the homage to his Big Mac.
“To me it looks beautiful,” he said about the statue of his Big Mac in 2007.
A lot of people feel the same way.
Note: Please consider joining my newsletter and, for less than what a Big Mac Meal costs, becoming a paid subscriber! You can easily sign up below. Your support of my mission to document roadside Americana is appreciated!