Obituary: Jim Delligatti / Pittsburgh-area McDonald's franchisee who created Big Mac

Aug. 2, 1918 - Nov. 28, 2016

Before it became the single-greatest-selling sandwich in the history of the world; before it became an actual economic index scrutinized by professors and policy-makers; before it became a symbol of the American appetite; even before it became the subject of an unforgettable tongue-twisting advertising jingle, the Big Mac was the product of the ingenuity of a Western Pennsylvanian.

Michael James “Jim” Delligatti, 98, of Fox Chapel died Monday. He really was the local man who made it big — a big sandwich, a big American statement, and a big caloric load (550 calories — including the special sauce — roughly a quarter of the recommended daily allowance, in fact).

Mr. Delligatti also later came up with the concept of breakfast at McDonald’s.

“Jim was a legendary franchisee within McDonald’s system who made a lasting impression on our brand,” McDonald’s said in a statement. “We will remember Jim as an insightful franchisee, a knowledgeable businessman, and an honorable gentleman who left a legacy of four generations of family members running great restaurants in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.”

A native of Uniontown, he was an Army sergeant in the European Theater during World War II. When he returned home, he hitchhiked across the country, from Pittsburgh to California, where he worked at drive-ins and carhops. He eventually brought that experience back to Pittsburgh and, with business partner John Sweeney, in 1953 opened Delney’s — a drive-in on McKnight Road.

In 1955, he traveled to Chicago for a restaurant convention. Fatefully, it was the only year that Ray Kroc and McDonald’s had a booth at the show.

“He thought he could do better with some costs, so he signed up with them to open a franchise in Western Pennsylvania,” his son, Michael Delligatti, said. That first location also opened on McKnight Road, in 1957. In the same kitchen, at age 49, Mr. Delligatti created the signature sandwich that’s left an indelible grease stain on American pop culture and sated billions of hungry bellies the world over.

“He’d opened some restaurants at that point, and he was looking to improve and gain more sales,” his son said. “He wanted to create a larger sandwich that people would really like. He asked McDonald’s and they turned him down several times. Finally, they said OK.

“He was fooling around and came up with the Big Mac. But the buns he had wouldn’t work because the meat would slide around. So he went to a local bakery and got a double cut bun with sesame seeds, which was more visually appealing.”

He spent a few weeks developing the special sauce. “We’re all sworn to secrecy on that,” Michael Delligatti said with a chuckle.

Mr. Delligatti sold the first Big Macs (originally called “The Aristocrat” and the “Blue Ribbon Burger”) for 45 cents in 1967 in his McDonald’s in Uniontown. McDonald’s corporate officials liked it and did a test market in all Pittsburgh-area stores. The product went national a year later and since has reached sales in the tens of billions.

The famous advertising jingle — “twoallbeefpatties ...” — was created in 1974 by Keith Reinhard, chairman of the New York ad agency DDB Worldwide.

In 1986, The Economist magazine created “the Big Mac Index” as an informal way to compare foreign currency values against the U.S. dollar. Based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, which says that exchange rates should equalize the price of a purchased item in any two countries, the index uses just one item — a Big Mac — because it is available in more than 100 countries.

Mr. Delligatti would go on to own 48 franchises, and although he sold most of them back to the company in 1982, his family still runs 21 in Western Pennsylvania. Though fast food has been maligned for its association with an unhealthy lifestyle, in 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac, Mr. Delligatti told the Post-Gazette that he still ate at least one a week — at age 89.

That year the McDonald’s Big Mac Museum Restaurant opened on Route 30 in North Huntingdon; it features a 14-by-12-foot replica of the burger.

“He was an awesome dad. He liked to do a lot of different things. He was a great pingpong player. He liked to water ski and did some snow skiing. He was a real go-getter,” Mr. Delligatti said of his father, who continued to work regularly well into his 90s.

He was also a philanthropist. In 1979, he, along with Pittsburgh oncologist Vincent Albo and the Pittsburgh Steelers, helped co-found the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh, which provides lodging to the families of seriously ill children undergoing treatment at area hospitals. Today, the house is attached to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville.

He is survived by his wife, Ellie Delligatti; sons James and Michael; and five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Visitation is from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. today and Friday at the Devlin Funeral Home in West View.

The funeral Mass is at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph’s Parish in O’ Hara. Memorial contributions may be made to the Pittsburgh Ronald McDonald House or to Providence Connections, a North Side social services agency.

Dan Gigler:; Twitter @gigs412

First Published November 30, 2016 10:06 AM


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