News

The capitalist history of the Filet-O-Fish, America’s favorite fast food fish sandwich

Fried fish, tartar sauce and cheese on a steamed bun – that’s the iconic McDonald’s Filet O Fish sandwich. You’ve probably eaten one, as McDonald’s serves around 300 million fish sandwiches every year across America, with a quarter of them served during Lent.

Did you know the fast-food staple was created to keep folks in the drive-thru during Lent?

The sandwich was created in 1962 after a Cincinatti, Ohio, McDonald’s franchise owner Lou Groen complained to corporate about falling sales during the season of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Lent is a season of fasting and reflection, and part of the fasting aspect of Lent includes not eating meat from land animals on Fridays, as it is described in Vatican II. The original McDonald’s menu only included hamburgers—so Catholics started avoiding the drive-thru during Lenten Fridays.

The neighborhood around Groen’s restaurant had a large Catholic population, and Friday sales plummeted during Lent, threatening the business, fast food historian and writer Adam Chandler explained.

“Groen needed a remedy for it because he wasn’t able to stay in business. So, he came up with this sandwich that was like one being served at a local chain Frisch’s Big Boy,” Chandler said.

The sandwich was originally pitted against the infamous “Hula Burger,” which was a slice of grilled pineapple topped with cheese and served on a bun. This cheesy, warm pineapple sandwich was the creation of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, who originally didn’t like the idea of a fish sandwich.

Whichever sandwich sold the most would become a regular menu item, and that’s how Filet O Fish became the first item added to the original McDonald’s menu in 1965.

The fishy revolution

Clearly Groen was on to something, because the Filet-O-Fish has spurred a movement of lent-inspired fish sandwich offerings, Chandler said.

The fast food fish sandwich has become a spring tradition, with seafood sales jumping 20% during Lent, according to menu research firm Datassential.

While it seems every fast food restaurant is coming out with a new fish sandwich this time of year, upscale restaurants are also leaning into the seafood spring theme, as Chandler explained in a 2021 piece for business publication Marker.

The fast food fish sandwich wars have progressed from advertising and review articles to social media, where in 2020 Arby’s used social media to target customers who complained online about the Filet-O-Fish, offering them a free fish sandwich in effort to win them over.

Media outlets ranging from religious magazines and blogs to major news organizations and content farms push out fast food fish sandwich rankings every winter. Catholic News Agency even ranks fast food fish sandwiches every year and offers bonus “pandering” points to restaurants that only serve their seafood during Lent.

Chandler said the Filet-O-Fish story is a great example of how consumer demand causes restaurants to react and change their menus accordingly.

“It’s a nice emblem of how responsive a fast food chain was to the intricacies of American communities. If you pay attention to fast food advertising, which I don’t necessarily recommend you do, but for this specific purpose. Around this time of year, you will see nearly every fast food restaurant promoting a fish sandwich because that is a huge part of the market share.”

And don’t think McDonald’s is the only fast food giant with religious roots. Of course, there is Chick-fil-a, whose fish sandwich was ranked as Catholic News Agency’s favorite sandwich in 2018. (The item is no longer on the menu).

In Marcia Chatelain’s op-ed in The Washington Post, she explains the connections between evangelicals and fast food that go beyond “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” in August 2012, where the restaurant saw record sales after its founder was criticized for making anti-gay comments.

In-N-Out Burger supported Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, a church at the center of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s.

The Filet-O-Fish might have started it all, but who has the best fast food fish sandwich today?

The reviews are in, and it seems the sandwich that started it all might not be the most tasty fast food fish, with the Filet-O-Fish ranking a little low on these lists.

  • “A Definitive Ranking Of The Best Fast Food Fish Sandwiches” (Uproxx, 2023)
  • “Who makes the best fast-food fried fish sandwich? (LA Times, 2021)
  • “Presenting The Takeout’s official Fast Food Fish Sandwich Power Ranking” (The Takeout, 2021)
Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm | abeahm@reckonmedia.com

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.