This month marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Egg McMuffin, a culinary invention that reshaped America’s relationship with breakfast. This is no hyperbole: the egg entrée that created the breakfast sandwich category has been a staple of national diets for generations, selling billions and driving counterfeits ever since. As recently as 2015, McDonald’s was responsible for purchasing about 5% of all eggs produced in the United States. And that can be directly attributed to the McMuffin, whose origins represent a bygone era of innovation.
Much has been written about what we lost when meals at home gave way to the hustle and bustle of American life and meals on the dashboard, but the birth of the de facto national breakfast sandwich offers also an increasingly rare story about entrepreneurship. More than a culinary riff, the McMuffin represents an era of innovation and light-fried experimentation that has passed us by as new forces – shareholder demands, non-compete agreements, monopolies and student debt, for n to name a few – have established themselves.
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Created by Herb Peterson, a McDonald’s franchisee in California, the Egg McMuffin was born out of Peterson’s quest to emulate the not-so-simple deliciousness of Eggs Benedict in basic sandwich form. To make it scalable for quick-service restaurants, Peterson deployed a Teflon ring to carefully cook the egg on a grill top, replaced American cheese with Hollandaise sauce, then added Canadian bacon, assembling the originated the open-faced sandwich on an English muffin. (The McMuffin was also first served with a side of jam or honey, but let’s assume that never happened.) Peterson lured famously stubborn McDonald’s president Ray Kroc into his kitchen to sample it. a. Kroc, who had just had lunch, immediately devoured two on the spot.
Starting at 63 cents and going national in 1976, the centerpiece of McDonald’s breakfast launch would help the morning meal account for 18% of all McDonald’s sales in the early 1980s and only grow from the. But even that number shows how revolutionary the Egg McMuffin was. In 1987, 25% of all breakfasts eaten away from home in the United States were eaten at McDonald’s. And a year later, in 1988, total McDonald’s drive-thru sales topped 50% for the first time in company history. The invention of a very popular and highly portable breakfast sandwich coinciding with a major increase in work hours certainly helped. And while Peterson would only profit from his invention through increased revenue from his stores, his efforts would forever change American cuisine.
It’s hard to imagine America changing that dramatically again, in part because the success that companies like McDonald’s have found through local entrepreneurs like Peterson has left less room for innovation and innovation. subsequent imagination. We can imagine our own moment being the golden age of entrepreneurship, but aside from the (already suspect) myth of Silicon Valley garage start-ups, Americans have been taking less risk on big ideas since decades. As David Sax, author of “The Soul of an Entrepreneur,” notes, the number of Americans who are self-employed and starting businesses has halved over the past 40 years. Meanwhile, the share of employees working for new companies in the United States fell from 14% in 1982 to 9% in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. This lack of new businesses translates disproportionately into fewer new jobs, less economic growth and productivity, limited innovation and less creativity.
The innovation lag is visible everywhere, from the apparent uniformity of online brands to the concentration of the industry in a few large cities. It is also visible in the same world that spawned creations such as the Egg McMuffin 50 years ago. Many of the dominant trends in fast food today seem to be driven less by self-help DIYers like Peterson and more by nostalgia, influencers, and partnerships with other giants. While Burger King, for example, is giving away cryptocurrency to win new customers, McDonald’s tapped Mariah Carey for its latest celebrity campaign, which relies more on repackaging existing items than creating again. Even as popular chains find ways to deploy new technologies, they have become too big and centralized to easily change or move away from a core set of ingredients. One of the biggest culinary trends to emerge in the pandemic, shadow kitchens are an innovation, though primarily designed to be built on top of existing businesses, making foods that are extremely familiar to consumers a reality. delivered by workers without benefits. And despite the flavor magic inherent in the past two years of fried chicken and sandwich wars, by the end of lunch, it’s still just chicken sandwiches.
That’s why the Egg McMuffin is special. It’s hard to replicate the creative and very specific scheme that gives the universe a portable Egg Benedict. Indeed, the McDonald’s pantry is full of iconic menu items brimming with the old handwork of its local innovators – the Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, Baked Apple Pie and Shamrock Shake were created by franchisees from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee and Connecticut, respectively. Other well-known institutions of small kitchen mythology include the Dairy Queen Blizzard, the Subway $5 Footlong and the KFC Bucket, all produced by small restaurateurs in an industry founded by them.
The good news is that the pandemic seems to be reversing this trend of innovation and risk-taking. Americans have not only quit their jobs in record numbers, but since the early months of the pandemic, they have also registered new businesses at rates not seen in more than a decade. As census data shows, the country is seeing an increase in entrepreneurial activity across all regions. Under the right conditions and with the help of the right policies, this shift could create a more even and resilient economy with better jobs and a host of exciting newcomers. It’s something to think about at breakfast.
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Adam Chandler is a New York-based writer and the author of “Drive-Thru Dreams,” a book about the fast food industry.
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