CINCINNATI — When Lou Groen opened a McDonald’s franchise in Cincinnati in 1959, the entire menu consisted of: hamburgers, 15 cents; cheeseburgers, 19 cents; fries, coffee, soda or milk, 10 cents; and shakes, 20 cents. With 87% of the Cincinnati population being Catholic, Fridays averaged only $75 a day. As a Catholic, Groen did not even eat his own hamburgers on Fridays.

“My grandfather was losing his shirt,” explained Groen’s granddaughter, Erica (Groen) Shadoin, in an interview with the Register. “The area is mostly Catholic. Everyone was going down the street on Fridays to Frisch’s restaurant that sold a fish sandwich.”

At the time, in observance of Friday as a day of fast and abstinence, it was a sin for Catholics to eat meat. In 1966, many national bishops’ conferences — including that of the U.S. — allowed Catholics to replace “no meat” with another form of penance. They issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” but expressed the hope that “the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”

“My grandfather had the idea to start selling a fish sandwich,” Shadoin said of the 1963 fishy brainchild. “He did a lot of research and came up with a sandwich using halibut with a slice of cheese in it.”

That year, the fish sandwich saved the franchise and became a permanent menu item for the fast-food company. The nationwide franchising of McDonald’s — the idea of Ray Kroc, based on the original restaurant of Richard and Maurice McDonald, in San Bernardino, California — had only begun a few years earlier. Groen’s franchise — the first in the state of Ohio — was the 69th McDonald’s.

In a 2006 interview with the Cincinnati Business Courier, Groen (who died in 2011 at 93 years old) explained that Kroc “hit the ceiling” at the idea. “I don’t want my stores stunk up with the smell of fish!” Kroc told Groen.

“But my grandfather was persistent,” Shadoin said. “He had to be; he was about to lose his business.” At this time, Kroc had his own idea for a meatless sandwich: the hula burger — a slice of pineapple and cheese on a bun. He agreed to a competition. Each would sell their sandwiches on the same day, and the winning sandwich would be added to the menu.

At the end of the day, the score was Hula Burger, 6; Filet-O-Fish, 350. And the rest is history.

 

Family Affair

For the Groen family, that history includes Shadoin becoming the new owner last May of the very franchise where her grandfather introduced the Filet-O-Fish. McDonald’s has long been a family affair, though. “My family has 23 franchises,” Shadoin said. “My dad owns five, my brother has eight, and I own 10.”

Lou Groen, at one point, owned 42, but sold most of them back to McDonald’s in 1986, keeping two for himself and two for his son Paul, Shadoin’s father. Paul had worked at the original McDonald’s as a young boy and Shadoin, in turn, worked for her father beginning at age 14. “My children tell me they want to work at McDonald’s someday,” she said. They are too young just now: ages 5, 3 and 1.

After 10 years living in California and returning to the Cincinnati area in 2009, Shadoin took a job as a McDonald’s shift manager. Working her way up through five and a half years of training, she was approved to buy her first franchise in October 2014. Last year, two of her grandfather’s former franchises came up for sale, including the one on 5425 West North Bend Road where the iconic fish sandwich was introduced, so she bought both of them. Shadoin is pleased that legacy is again part of the family’s group of franchises.

“Those restaurants have so much meaning to my family,” she said. This past Jan. 1, the original franchise marked 60 years in business.

McDonald’s is not the only legacy in the Groen family. Shadoin explained that the Catholic faith has also been passed on through the generations. “My faith has been a huge blessing,” she said. “It has given me my foundation for life.”

Her grandmother Edna, now 88 years old, walks the quarter-mile from her home to daily Mass at St. William Church, where she married Lou. Her grandmother’s parents helped build the church, and Shadoin was married there, as were her parents.

 

Fish During Lent

Shadoin said that the Filet-O-Fish is her favorite menu item. “It’s a great sandwich,” she said.” It started out as a halibut sandwich, but it was too expensive to scale, so now they use Alaskan Pollock.”

The original location during Lent sells an average of 520 fish sandwiches a day, 19% of receipts. Outside of Lent, the location sells 70 a day, or 6% of total sales.

Among the many Catholics likely to eat Filet-O-Fish this Lent are two people with decidedly Catholic reasons. Tori Oswald of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, buys it simply because she does not like it. “I get the Filet-O-Fish on Fridays during Lent often because I consider it a penance in itself,” she said. “It’s to comply with the no-meat-on-Friday rule. During the rest of the year, I offer up something else on Fridays.”

Barbara Golder and her husband, Steve, of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, frequently buy McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, too, especially when traveling on the road. “We converted in 2005 and observed meatless Fridays from the start — Lent or not,” she said. “We always liked it [the Filet-O-Fish], but once we learned the story behind it, I enjoyed them even more.”

It symbolizes “the power of Catholic commitment,” Golder added. “If we can make Ray Kroc bring on the Filet-O-Fish, imagine what we could do in other more important areas!”

Register correspondent Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.