The Egg McMuffin made its debut at the Upper State Street McDonald’s in Santa Barbara in 1972. The novel breakfast sandwich became the cornerstone of an entirely new menu and expanded set of business hours for the global fast food titan. Prior to its creation, the Golden Arches opened at 11 am and did not serve breakfast.
The ingenious handheld egg sandwich was the creation of Herbert R. Peterson. Peterson grew up poor in Chicago during the lean years of the Great Depression. His father, a U.S. Marine pilot, died from yellow fever while training for World War I when Herb was just three months old. He was raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother. At age 22 Peterson shipped off overseas and served four years “living in muddy fox holes” as a major in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Peterson, a family man and father of four whose relationship with his wife lasted 61 years until death did them part, went on to work in advertising and helped design the first costume for McDonald’s iconic character, Ronald McDonald. But it wasn’t until after he set aside his career as an adman to become a franchise owner of the Golden Arches that he really made his mark in the fast food industry.
“I’ve got something I think you’re going to like,” Herb Peterson told Ray Kroc one sunny Santa Barbara afternoon in 1971 at the McDonald’s on Upper State Street.
Peterson owned the restaurant and Kroc was the company founder who had purchased it from the McDonald brothers in 1961. The “something” in question was an open faced egg, cheese and Canadian bacon breakfast sandwich served on toasted English muffins. The morning equivalent of the afternoon essential, the hamburger.
“I like it!” exclaimed Ray Kroc smacking the countertop with his hand loud enough to turn heads just before scarfing down a second sandwich.
Herb Peterson’s McDonald’s on Upper State had served as the laboratory where he fiddled with and finessed his idea to take his favorite breakfast meal, eggs Benedict, and turn it into a fast food staple. After much experimentation, such as finding a way to fry a round egg to fit the muffin, first a runny yolk then a firm one, first with hollandaise sauce then without, no cheese then cheese, Peterson succeeded in crafting a masterpiece.
What seems all too simple now in fact took a lot of thought and effort. At that time many California grocery stores did not even carry English muffins. Making a sandwich with them, though perhaps done by a few clever folks in some household kitchens, was for the most part unheard of. After refining his tasty creation Peterson then had to convince corporate headquarters, and all other franchise owners, that his nifty new breakfast sandwich would satisfy hungry customers and make money. And that he did! He sold the first egg McMuffins for 55 cents.
I recall in my younger years seeing Herb Peterson in the McDonald’s on Upper State Street. Though I rarely eat at McDonald’s these days, when I do it’s breakfast while on road trips, I used to eat there as a kid and teenager and as a young adult. I had no idea who he was at the time. I frequently wondered why an old man was still working and especially why at a fast food joint. I actually felt sorry for him in some ways, believing that he worked out of necessity for money or perhaps because he was lonely and needed to get out for company. My foolish young mind had never considered that he might actually be the owner, which he was for McDonald’s locations all over Santa Barbara and the neighboring town of Goleta. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally learned just exactly who that impeccably dressed old man was and why he was always there.
The Upper State Street McDonald’s location.
“The Good Egg: Herb Peterson, the Egg McMuffin and the Secret Ingredients of Innovation” by David Peterson and Ann Marsh (2009)