We weren’t a fast food family, as my mom likes to say, but on Herb Peterson Day that didn’t matter. Herb Peterson invented the Egg McMuffin in my sleepy hometown of Santa Barbara, California—known more for its famous residents than its famous inventions—and every year since 2009 in honor of the late-inventor’s birthday, the McDonald’s restaurants of my youth celebrate the man and the legendary breakfast sandwich he created. In the late ’60s after an illustrious career in the ad world, Peterson stuffed his family of six into their station wagon and drove across the country to open the first McDonald’s in Santa Barbara County.
People were suddenly on-the-go more than ever before. Peterson, who quickly opened another five McDonald’s franchises in the area, took note of this new “working trend” and wanted to do something about it. The “foodie,” as Peterson’s son David remembers him, was a friend of Julia Child (another Santa Barbara resident) and loved to experiment in the kitchen. As a lover of eggs Benedict, he started tinkering with the idea of a handheld “poor man’s option” before McDonald’s even had a breakfast menu.
Peterson asked a local blacksmith to craft a Teflon-coated egg ring that would turn his favorite morning dish into a simpler, handier, on-the-go meal. (Poaching eggs didn’t fit into McDonald’s assembly line process, so the ring was a solution that could be done on a grill). He slapped some Canadian bacon and a slice of cheese on two English muffins — ingredients, that David says, weren’t that easy to come by in the small coastal town of the American Riviera—and started selling the sandwich to customers in 1971.
That led to what Peterson hailed the “Fast Break Breakfast” four hours earlier than the usual start time for his Central Coast restaurants. “Opening his restaurants at 7 a.m. was a radical idea,” says David, who started working in his father’s restaurants at the age of 10. “Now, it’s 35 percent of our sales.”
For four months, Peterson tested his breakfast item before letting McDonald’s chairman and CEO Ray Kroc in on the secret. Kroc was an old friend and boss from his days as Vice President of advertising for Chicago’s D’Arcy Advertising, and during a visit to Santa Barbara, he tasted what would become known as the Egg McMuffin for the first time. In one sitting, Kroc finished eight sandwiches.
Just a few weeks later, Peterson took his handheld eggs Benedict recipe—along with some signature ingredients like salted butter, Bays English muffins, his own Canadian bacon and of course, that custom egg ring—to McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. By 1976, McDonald’s had perfected the breakfast menu, with Peterson’s signature sandwich at its center. Of course, it only took another 43 years before McDonald’s finally started serving the all-day breakfast menu, where its McMuffin family of sandwiches still reigns supreme.
This year’s celebration on January 24 (Peterson’s actually birthday was January 5) will mark the ninth anniversary of Herb Peterson Day, where an Egg McMuffin will set back customers only $2 at participating locations. The tribute, which started on what would have been Peterson’s 90th birthday, gets the whole community involved. Herb Peterson Day “is a fun way to honor [my dad] on his birthday,” says David. “Every year we get such great community involvement.”
While Peterson is the only entrepreneur-turned-inventor to get his own dedicated day, he’s not the first to earn acclaim for his contribution to the Golden Arches. Jim Delligatti, who passed away this past November, introduced the Big Mac to his Uniontown, Pennsylvania franchisee in 1967. It only took McDonald’s a year to start selling his sandwich that featured two all-beef patties and special sauce to nationwide audiences, and on its 40th anniversary the Delligatti family opened a Big Mac Museum Restaurant featuring memorabilia and a 12-foot Big Mac bronze sculpture.
Likewise, it was an astounding 51 years ago that Lou Groen earned himself a place in McDonald’s history when he created the Filet-O-Fish. The sandwich, which Groen cooked up in an attempt to attract his heavily Catholic, Cincinnati clientele who observed meatless Fridays, is now enjoyed about 300 million times a year.
“McDonald’s is a very tight knit family,” says David. “A lot of the ideas you see bubble up from our customers.”
He sold the original four franchises last November, opting for what he calls a “simpler life.” and the two remaining Peterson franchisees located in Goleta continue to heavily support the community with school fundraisers, educational programs, and more. As David explains, “I have ketchup in my blood.”