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The Creator of the Big Mac Has Died

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Gene J. Puskar/AP

Where others saw two all-beef patties, sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun, Jim Delligatti saw the future.

The McDonald’s franchisee, who created the fast-food monolith’s signature sandwich nearly 50 years ago, died Monday at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 98. Michael James Delligatti — who ate at least one of his signature creations per week for decades, according to his son — owned a McDonald’s franchise in Uniontown, Pennsylvania and created the Big Mac in 1967 after seeing (or perhaps anticipating) the need for a bigger sandwich on the McDonald’s menu.

In 1993, Delligatti said he worked on the Big Mac’s sauce — a variation of thousand-island dressing — for two years before perfecting it. Though his son (also Michael) said Delligatti decided on the name Big Mac “because ‘Big Mc’ sounded funny,” it was actually Esther Glickstein, a 21-year-old secretary working in the advertising department of McDonald’s, who suggested the name to an executive in 1967. The leading candidate prior had been “Blue Ribbon Burger.”

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Delligatti said that his overseers at McDonald’s initially resisted his invention because the chain’s pared-down menu was already doing so well. But after his custom creation spread to the rest of the 47 restaurants he managed in Pennsylvania, they added it to the national menu just a year after its creation, in 1968.

Since then, the sandwich has become perhaps the defining item at McDonald’s; in 2008, the company estimated it sold one every 17 seconds. “Delligatti was a legendary franchisee within McDonald’s system who made a lasting impression on our brand,” the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company said Wednesday in a statement. The Big Mac “has become an iconic sandwich enjoyed by many around the world.”

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Delligatti opened his first McDonald’s in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Hills in 1957. Aside from the Big Mac, he pioneered breakfast service at the restaurant, introducing hotcakes and sausages, designed to feed hungry steelworkers coming in from overnight shifts at the city’s steel mills. In 1979, Delligati co-founded Pittsburgh’s Ronald McDonald House, a facility where families of sick children visiting the city for care can stay; at the time, it was only the seventh in the nation.

And Delligatti’s creation lives on beyond the culinary world. The Big Mac Index, developed by The Economist in 1986, is a measure of the cost of living and currency comparisons across international borders. Given the Big Mac’s ubiquity, it serves as a yardstick for determining whether currencies are at their “correct” level, a practice that has come to be known as “burgernomics.”