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David Edgerton, Burger King co-founder who helped make the Whopper, dies at 90

An undated image of Burger King’s two founders, James W. McLamore and David R. Edgerton, who is working with charbroil equipment for the Burger King kitchen.
An undated image of Burger King’s two founders, James W. McLamore and David R. Edgerton, who is working with charbroil equipment for the Burger King kitchen. (Courtesy of David R. Edgerton)

David R. Edgerton, a serial entrepreneur who helped turn a South Florida hamburger franchise into Burger King but who came to regret selling the company before it became a whopping fast-food empire, died April 3 at a hospital in Miami. He was 90.

The cause was complications from surgery after a fall, said his friend and financial manager, Betty Amos Righetti.

Mr. Edgerton and his business partner, James W. McLamore, started their burger company in 1954, one year before Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s franchise in the Chicago suburbs. Burger King now has more than 16,000 restaurants in 100 countries around the world — about half as many locations as McDonald’s, the world’s largest burger chain. According to a report by the research firm Technomic, it’s the fifth-biggest restaurant brand in the United States, with an estimated $9.3 billion in sales.

Burger King’s success can be traced in part to innovations by Mr. Edgerton, who oversaw the company’s operations in its early years while McLamore, who called himself “the second-best burger salesman in the United States,” handled its business side. The duo ran the company together until 1967, when they netted millions of dollars on what had begun as a small, quick-serve outpost near the Miami airport.

Mr. Edgerton, a college dropout who delighted in tinkering with restaurant menus, equipment, lighting and decor, was managing a Howard Johnson eatery when he met McLamore, who was operating his own restaurant a few blocks away. They partnered to establish what was initially a franchise of Insta-Burger King, a regional chain that manufactured “the world’s first totally automated hamburger,” according to hamburger historian Josh Ozersky.

“The Insta-Burger was the product of a classic American machine fetish, the precise gastronomical equivalent of the conveyor belts and burnished rollers that figured so prominently in the educational films and newsreels of the time,” Ozersky wrote in “The Hamburger: A History.”

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Soon, however, the partners realized that their burger-making machinery was essentially “a Rube Goldberg device,” as McLamore put it, prone to breakdowns and malfunctions. Mr. Edgerton once took a hatchet to the machine and vowed to replace it with a better model, Righetti recalled. Weeks later, he devised a new conveyor-belt charbroiler that allowed the restaurant to cook burgers with ease and efficiency. The unit has since been widely replicated in the fast-food industry.

Like Kroc, the Burger King partners focused on honing a small menu of burgers, fries and drinks. But as they expanded into Miami, adding a handful of franchises in the metro area, they also supplemented their menu with a belt-loosening 37-cent special they called the Whopper. The burger was more than twice as expensive as a standard McDonald’s burger, and almost twice as large: a quarter-pound of beef topped with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and sliced onion on a sesame-seed bun.

The burger, Mr. Edgerton told the New York Times in an interview a few years before his death, effectively saved the business from financial ruin. “We were losing our butts,” he said. “We starved together.” By 1959, they had acquired the rights to the Insta-Burger brand, renamed the company Burger King and begun a national expansion with franchises across the country.

The Whopper is now one of the most famous branded sandwiches in the world, perhaps second only to the double-decker Big Mac that Jim Delligatti created in 1967 at a McDonald’s franchise near Pittsburgh. But success generated a rift between the partners years later, when McLamore — who died in 1996 — wrote a memoir claiming that it was he who “suggested that we call our product a Whopper, knowing that this would convey imagery of something big.”

Until the end of his life, Mr. Edgerton insisted otherwise.

He said he also maintained regret over his and McLamore’s decision to sell the company, after Pillsbury made what was then considered a lucrative offer of about $20 million. Had he waited another year or two, he believed, he would have earned substantially more, amid a burgeoning national interest in fast-food franchises and the continued growth of Burger King’s restaurants.

The company has since been sold several times, most recently to the investment firm 3G Capital, for about $3.3 billion in 2010. It is now controlled through Restaurant Brands International, which also owns Popeyes and the Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons.

David Russell Edgerton Jr. was born in Lebanon, Pa., on May 26, 1927. His mother was a concert violinist, and his father bounced between jobs in several states, working in hotel management and later becoming an engineer.

Mr. Edgerton graduated from high school near Chicago and served in the Army before studying hotel and restaurant management at Cornell University. He left before completing his degree and went on to study business at Northwestern University, where he dropped out again but started a successful pie company that catered to students.

The enterprise seemed to set Mr. Edgerton on an entrepreneurial path and marked the beginning of a pattern of starting and then selling successful businesses. After Burger King, he pivoted to upscale dining, establishing a chain of steakhouse restaurants called Bodega that expanded to 12 locations nationwide before he sold it in 1978. (By that time, it had become a major customer of one of Mr. Edgerton’s other ventures, a wine company that imported bottles from France.)

Joining with restaurateur Leonce Picot, he became a partner in several South Florida bistros and helped operate restaurants in San Francisco and Monterey, Calif. He later joined Righetti, his longtime accountant, as a minority partner at three Fuddruckers restaurants in Central Florida.

When fast-food workers around the world staged protests in 2015, as part of the “Fight for $15” campaign for higher wages, Mr. Edgerton suggested that the movement signaled the demise of the business model he used to found his company. “You’re not going to get these dollar hamburgers anymore that both Burger King and McDonald’s had,” he told Time magazine. “I see a lot of $10 hamburgers arriving on the scene.”

Mr. Edgerton married Kerstin Andersson, a Pan Am flight attendant from Sweden, in 1968. They divorced several years later and remained close; he never remarried, and described Andersson as the love of his life. He retired to the Miami area in the early 2000s and leaves no immediate survivors.

While Mr. Edgerton remained proud of his work building Burger King, Righetti said, he long ago stopped dining there. “He felt the quality went down, drastically,” she said in a phone interview, adding that Mr. Edgerton believed the company had shrunk the size of its burgers. “He probably had not been to a Burger King for many, many, many years.”

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