What you don't know about McDonald's famous Filet-O-Fish

Whether it was after a long night of drinking, at a rest stop in the middle of a road trip, or in an effort to transport yourself to a simpler time, you've likely craved a Filet-O-Fish from McDonald's in the not-so-distant past. And you may still be kicking yourself for indulging your taste buds, but there's something about that fried fish smothered by a mound of tartar sauce that keeps us coming back for more. But you may be surprised to learn that this deliciously guilty pleasure, has a very interesting history.

From its humble Ohio beginnings, the Filet-O-Fish has gone on to become a fast food phenomenon. The simple fried fish patty sandwich with cheese and tartar sauce has been around longer than the Big Mac and is one of the biggest non-burger success stories in the history of the franchise. Although the fish sandwich has held its own on the McDonald's menu for over 50 years, there are still a lot of things about the Filet-O-Fish that you probably do not know.

It was introduced to appeal to Catholics

The Filet-O-Fish was McDonald's first non-meat sandwich addition to the menu. And while it has remained a popular menu item for over 50 years, it was created out of necessity by one desperate franchisee.

The groundbreaking idea to add a mouthwatering fried fish sandwich to the menu of a burger joint was first introduced by Cincinnati-area franchisee, Lou Groen, in 1961. His Ohio restaurant was located in an area of the city where over two-thirds of the population were practicing Catholics and didn't eat meat on Fridays. As a result, Groen's burger sales dropped dramatically on Friday nights, and he averaged only around $75 in profits. And for a man with a wife and young children at home, $75 was not going to cut it.

Groen realized he was losing most of his Friday business to another area franchise, Frisch's Big Boy, which had a fish sandwich on the menu. Groen knew that he needed to act fact to be competitive and save his bleeding profit margin. Just like that, the Filet-O-Fish was born.

It beat out a pineapple-based burger

When Groen came up with the idea of a breaded fish sandwich, he knew it would be a winner — but he had a major hurdle to cross first. He took his idea to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc in hopes of getting his new sandwich on the menu. Kroc, however, wasn't excited about the idea of having fishy-smelling restaurants.

Kroc challenged Groen to a competition against his own meat-free sandwich idea, the Hula Burger — a slice of pineapple and cheese on a bun. In the end, Groen crushed his corporate competition, selling 350 Filet-O-Fish to Kroc's six Hula Burgers in one day. In 1965, the Filet-O-Fish became the first new menu item added to the national McDonald's menu. 

Today, the Filet-O-Fish is a popular menu item all year long, but it's really a star for Catholics — 25 percent of the sandwich sales occurred during Lent in 2016.

It's really made of fish

If you were wondering (or worried) about just what you're eating when you bite into your Filet-O-Fish, you can breathe easy. You may be quick to assume the fast food fillet is a mishmash of questionable non-fish ingredients, but there's nothing artificial happening here — the Filet-O-Fish has always been made with real fish. The first Filet-O-Fish sandwiches were made with halibut until McDonald's started using cod shortly after in an effort to save money.

In case you needed another reason to feel good about eating your next Filet-O-Fish, you should know that McDonald's is doing its part to maintain the stability of the fish population as well a healthy environment. These days, the Filet-O-Fish is made with sustainable Alaskan Pollock. In 2013 McDonald's announced that they would source all of their fish in the United States from a single sustainable Pollock fishery.

Phil A. O' Fish was only around for a short time

From "You Deserve A Break Today" to "I'm Lovin' It," McDonald's has always been known for its catchy marketing campaigns over the years. You know, those jingles that slither their way into your subconscious and take over your brain so that you can't stop singing along with them.  

But when it comes to the Filet-O-Fish, the marketing campaigns haven't been nearly as memorable — at least for the most part. The sandwich launched in the early 1960s and soon gained the simple slogan, "The fish that catches people." McDonald's tried out a few different slogans and in 1976 introduced a cartoon fish character named Phil A. O' Fish to help them sell their breaded fish sandwiches. But unlike Ronald McDonald and The Hamburglar (who were also gaining popularity at that time) Phil didn't last long. In 1977, McDonald's did away with Phil A. O' Fish for good in favor of their "Food for thought" campaign.

The steamed bun makes it better

One of the best things about the Filet-O-Fish — besides the fish, of course — is definitely the bun. A major detail that sets the Filet-O-Fish apart from its beef-based counterparts at McDonald's is that unlike the other sandwiches on the menu, the fish sandwich is served on a bun that is steamed, which makes the bread lighter and fluffier than the toasted buns used for most of the other classic sandwiches like the Big Mac.

But don't worry, even if the Filet-O-Fish isn't exactly your thing, you can still give the steamed bun a try by using this amazing McDonald's hack. If you want to experience all of that light, fluffy goodness for yourself on one of McDonald's other sandwiches, just ask that your sandwich be made with a steamed bun when you order. It really does make everything better.

There's a real reason for the half slice of cheese

If you don't mind the fact that McDonald's uses pasteurized processed American cheese on the Filet-O-Fish, you may have wondered why they only give you a half slice — surely the corporate giant that is McDonald's can afford to give you a whole piece, right? But the folks at the Golden Arches aren't doing it just to be cheap. In fact, the decision to cut back on the amount of cheese used on the sandwich was completely intentional. McDonald's executives were afraid that adding too much cheese would overpower the fish patty. A half slice of cheese, according to them, was just enough to allow customers to enjoy the delicious flavor of the fish itself.

Not only does a half slice of cheese on the Filet-O-Fish give your taste buds more of a chance to experience the flavor of the fish, but it also saves you a few calories — 30 calories and two grams of fat to be exact.

Filet-O-Fish nuggets were a huge fail

In 2013, McDonald's introduced Fish McBites, a deep sea take on their popular Chicken McNuggets. Execs launched the nuggets in three sizes as well as a Happy Meal version. Like the name implies, the Fish McBites were designed to be bite-sized versions of the Filet-O-Fish sandwich — breaded fish nuggets designed for snacking and meals on-the-go. And although the McBites were way easier to eat in the car than the much messier Filet-O-Fish sandwich, they didn't get to spend much time on the menu.

Fish McBites performed terribly for the restaurant, and their poor sales coincided with the company's first decline in global sales in ten years. McDonald's quickly pulled the Fish McBites from the menu in the same year they were introduced. But not everyone agreed with McDonald's decision to get rid of the fish nuggets for good. In early 2019, a change.org petition was created to get the Fish McBites back on the menu. Unfortunately, they didn't even break 50 signatures by the two-month mark, so the powers that be probably have't been swayed too much.

President Trump loves the Filet-O-Fish

One of the most famous fans of the Filet-O-Fish is none other than President Trump. He opened up about his love for fast food on the campaign trail during the 2016 election. At a town hall meeting in South Carolina, Trump told CNN's Anderson Cooper that his favorite menu item at McDonald's is the fish sandwich, which he called the "Fish Delight."  

His staffers have confirmed the president's love for the fish sandwich. In their book, Let Trump Be Trump, former staffers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie write that one of Trump's favorite fast food dinners includes "two Big Macs, two Filet-O-Fish, and a chocolate malted."

In January 2019, President Trump shared his love for the Filet-O-Fish with the Clemson University football team who visited the White House after winning the national championship. Clemson's visit was scheduled during a government shutdown, which meant that most of the White House staff was furloughed — including many of those from the kitchen. But President Trump wouldn't let the players leave with empty stomachs, so he personally paid for a lavish fast food spread for the team, which included a huge mound of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, among other fast food favorites. President Trump set out another fast food spread for the North Dakota State football team a few months later.

You can get it on a (huge) burger

If every trip to McDonald's leaves you painfully agonizing over whether you should order a Big Mac, a McChicken, or a Filet-O-Fish sandwich, you can finally stop stressing yourself out. Believe it or not, you aren't the only one who's had a hard time making this choice. But thankfully you don't have to decide, because now you can have all three classic sandwiches at once. 

Look no further than McDonald's secret menu for the Land, Air, and Sea Burger, a massive sandwich that caters to those indecisive customers who just can't decide which form of protein they want to occupy the space on their bun. But be warned, although the Land, Air, and Sea burger saves you from making a difficult choice, it won't save you any money.  If you dare to give this gargantuan burger a go, you have to order a Big Mac, a McChicken, and a Filet-O-Fish and assemble the sandwich yourself by putting the chicken and fish patties inside Big Mac, along with however many of the buns you desire. 

Your sandwich is probably old

Filet-O-Fish lovers know there's nothing like that first bite into that hot, flaky fish yumminess. But no matter how delicious it is, odds are your Filet-O-Fish sandwich is pretty old. McDonald's employees weighed in on a popular Reddit post warning customers about the items they should never order on the menu at their favorite fast food chains, and this tasty fish sandwich came up a lot.

The McDonald's employees warned that because most customers order burgers, the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches tend to sit out longer than others. And what does that mean for you? It means that your Filet-O-Fish has probably been sitting out longer than you would hope, especially if you're ordering any time other than a busy lunch or dinner rush. If any sandwich should be fresh, it's the fish, right? Apparently, that's not what you're getting most of the time.

And if that information alone doesn't gross you out and make you just want to eat a homemade grilled cheese, some workers admitted on that same thread that the steamers that are used to warm your bun aren't exactly cleaned as often as they should be. Yum.

But you can make it fresher by asking for no cheese

There's no way to make sure that you get a perfect Filet-O-Fish every time you visit a McDonald's. There's always a chance that you'll get too much tartar sauce or cheese that isn't perfectly centered inside of the bun. But if you're worried about getting stuck with a sandwich that's been sitting under a warmer for hours, there is a simple hack you can use to try to get something more fresh. The next time you order, try telling them to hold the cheese in order to increase your odds of ending up with a fish sandwich that's not that old.

If you don't mind being perceived as a little high maintenance (and if you won't really miss the cheese), this relatively simple ask will force the employees to prepare your Filet-O-Fish on the spot so it can meet your specifications. This will make sure that your sandwich is fresh (or at least fresher than the rest).

Some stores have put a new twist the classic sandwich

Since its 1961 launch, the Filet-O-Fish has grown to become an international sensation. There are variations of Lou Groen's original sandwich sold in stores all around the world, and some of them look (and taste) pretty differently than what you're used to. Some Asian countries, including China, have rolled out a Wasabi Filet-O-Fish. The sandwich keeps many of the original ingredients, except the traditional tartar sauce has been swapped for a special spicy wasabi sauce.

And in 2015, some McDonald's U.S. locations introduced an Old Bay Filet-O-Fish to their menus. The sandwich, which was the brainchild of a Baltimore franchisee, is available in some Mid-Atlantic states including Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. The Old Bay Filet-O-Fish takes the spice in the traditional sandwich to the next level. The Alaskan Pollock fillet is topped with tartar sauce infused with Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay, which is a blend of 18 herbs and spices, is popular in the Mid Atlantic states and is often used in seafood dishes.