David R. Edgerton, who helped start what became the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, Burger King, but then agreed to sell the company for what proved to be a bargain price just...
His death was announced in a paid notice in The Miami Herald, but it was otherwise not widely reported.
A business contemporary of Raymond A. Kroc, who built the McDonald’s chain into the industry leader, Edgerton started Burger King with $12,000 after managing Howard Johnson’s restaurants in Miami and Orlando, Florida.
At the time, he had been preparing to open a Dairy Queen with a hamburger section in Jacksonville, Florida. But he changed his mind and sold the business to acquire Insta Burger King, a 15-cent hamburger business in Miami. He took it over in March 1954.
He soon persuaded James W. McLamore, who owned the nearby Brickell Bridge Restaurant, to join him in what was then a novel food-service business model: a restaurant with a limited menu, fast service and low prices, with customers going inside to place orders and pay in advance.
At the time, fast-food restaurants typically had carhops bring orders to a customer’s car.
In a 1998 memoir, “The Burger King: Jim McLamore and the Building of an Empire,” McLamore described Edgerton as a creative conceptual thinker but also as someone who “never focused very much on details, particularly those concerning financial matters.”
Early on, Edgerton estimated that profits were running at an eye-popping 28 percent of sales. But the “books” he was looking at turned out to be an assortment of papers stuffed into a peach basket showing that Insta Burger had actually lost money in its first few months.
It was hard for the partners at first. “We were losing our butts,” Edgerton said in a 2014 interview for this obituary. Paying himself $50 a week, he added, “We starved together.”
A major problem was the frequent breakdowns of the Rube Goldberg-like Insta broiler they had inherited. One day, McLamore wrote, “the machine began to malfunction just at the moment Dave was standing in front of it,” and the grinding of its metal parts sent him into a rage.
By McLamore’s account, Edgerton “reached into his toolbox and grabbed a hatchet” and sank it into the stainless steel mechanism, destroying it. He then shouted, red-faced, “I can build a better machine than this pile of junk!”
Three weeks later, Edgerton and a mechanic who ran a machine shop had produced a continuous-chain broiler, which would set a standard for all Burger King broilers and become a model for equipment in the industry.
But it was the creation of the company’s signature Whopper that saved the venture.
Its genesis can be traced to early 1957, when the partners were on a business trip to inspect a poorly patronized prefabricated Burger King experimental unit near the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. There they noticed, less than 100 yards away, a rundown drive-in restaurant with a sign advertising a big hamburger and a long line of customers standing out front.
McLamore bought one of the burgers, served on a 5-inch bun with all the fixings, and gave one to Edgerton. Both were impressed by its quality. Back on the road, the two agreed that they should introduce a large, heavily garnished burger. It eventually became the “most preferred” sandwich in America, according to the trade press.
Which of them was responsible for the name is disputed.
“I named it,” Edgerton said flatly in the 2014 interview, adding that he had also made the first drawing of the king on the company logo.
But in his memoir, McLamore wrote, “I suggested that we call our product a Whopper,” and that they should install signs calling Burger King “Home of the Whopper.”
The business took off, and by 1967 it had more than 400 units in about 20 states, particularly in the East and California, as well as in a few other countries. Its success drew an offer from the Pillsbury Co. to buy Burger King.
“I really didn’t want to sell out,” Edgerton said, but he went along because he had found McLamore to be “a golfer first and foremost” who wanted more time to indulge his passion and who had no real need to keep working, being married to a woman of wealth.
The partners shared $20 million in proceeds from the sale (about $152 million in today’s money) after paying $5 million to a financial backer, Harvey Fruehauf. “We thought it was a smart thing to do at the time,” Edgerton said. “It wasn’t.”
Had they waited a bit longer, he said, they could have gotten $100 million more; the industry was about to flourish.
“We sold one year too soon,” Edgerton said.
After passing through various other hands after General Mills bought Pillsbury, Burger King had more than 12,100 restaurants worldwide and was valued at about $4 billion when it was acquired in 2010 by 3G Capital, a Brazilian investment group.
David Russell Edgerton Jr., the oldest of two children, was born on May 26, 1927, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His Quaker father was an itinerant hotel operator; his mother, the former Blanche Berger, was a concert violinist.
In his early years the family had a peripatetic life, living in Kutztown, Pennsylvania; Dayton, Ohio; Mount Dora, Florida; and Wilmette, Illinois, north of Chicago.
Edgerton at first thought he wanted to become a stage designer, but after a brief stint in the Army he decided to attend the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, from which McLamore, he later discovered in Florida, had graduated.
Edgerton left Cornell after two years without graduating and returned to the Chicago area, where he enrolled in Northwestern University as a part-time student. It was at Northwestern that he began his entrepreneurial career, running a successful pie-making business that sold mainly to students. It lasted three years.
Edgerton dropped out of Northwestern as well and went to work as an accountant for the Albert Pick hotel chain in Chicago. After that he went to Florida, where he was a manager for Howard Johnson’s. While waiting for his aborted Dairy Queen to be completed, he sold Fuller brushes door-to-door, and while creating his burger business, he pruned trees for the Florida Power & Light Co.
In 1968, just after selling Burger King, Edgerton married Kerstin Anderson, a Swedish flight attendant he had met in Miami. They had no children, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1972.
“I was just moving around too much,” Edgerton said. “I’d go off for a week and visit 10 cities.”
McLamore, who remained with Burger King for many years after the sale, died in 1996.
After his 12-year run with Burger King, Edgerton started the Bodega Steak restaurant chain, with locations in Florida, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas. He sold it in 1978.
In 1985 he moved to California, where he partnered with Leonce Picot in opening restaurants in Monterey and San Francisco. He went back to Florida in 1993 to buy a minority interest in three Fuddruckers restaurants.
Edgerton did not remarry and leaves no immediate survivors; his only sibling, Jane Edgerton Johnson, died before him.
He spent his final years in a Miami retirement community in the Cutler Bay suburb of Miami, where he shunned fast-food hamburgers but remained conversant about developments at Burger King.
He complained that the company, which had a series of jolting ups and downs over subsequent decades, let its menu get too big, and that its plethora of chief executives — “bookkeepers,” he called them — had rarely had experience in the restaurant business.
Asked in the 2014 interview if he regretted walking away from an industry on the verge of a boom that could have made him a billionaire, he pondered the question for a moment and then said, “That’s hindsight.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.