Consistency, the greatest asset of fast-food burger chain McDonald’s, can also be its greatest liability. While patrons are attracted to the fact that their menu is predictable and tastes basically the same no matter where in the world you're eating it, the burger joint still embarks on experiments to add some variety. The McRib was a success; the McPizza, less so.
In the early 1990s, the chain decided to go where it had never gone before—to introduce a new hamburger and name it after someone. It would not be the Ronald, after its enduring clown mascot, nor would it be the Mac Tonight, after its unsettling foam-faced commercial lounge singer. It would be the namesake of the most famous athlete in the world—and one of the most famous people in the world, period.
In honor of Michael Jordan, McDonald’s rolled out The McJordan Special.
The idea was hatched in 1990, when Jordan, a massive multimedia presence with numerous endorsement deals—the $10 million to $15 million he generated annually in peddling Air Jordan sneakers, advertising, and other off-court jobs far outpaced his $3 million NBA salary—agreed to allow McDonald’s to dub a variation on the Quarter Pounder the McJordan. The NBA great’s burger consisted of a quarter-pound of beef, barbeque sauce, bacon, cheese, onions, pickles, and mustard. The combination came after several years of Jordan trying and nixing different preparations: It was said to have stemmed from his family trying to spice up boring burgers while on a tight budget while he was growing up.
“It’s what he likes on a burger,” Tori Moore, a regional marketing manager for McDonald’s, told the Chicago Tribune. “This is it. You can’t call any other sandwich by his name, and you can’t call this anything else.”
Moore, who apparently had no fear of inciting controversy over calling a hamburger a sandwich, said the 519-calorie burger was test-marketed in Chicago, Illinois, the base for Jordan's Chicago Bulls. In March 1991, the $1.89 burger went on sale at roughly 350 McDonald’s locations in the Chicago area.
Moving 100 to 150 McJordan Special burgers per location per day, the response was so strong that McDonald’s decided to extend its stay on the menu. Originally scheduled to end in April, the promotional item was available through May. Later that year and into early 1992, it was also sold in 500 locations throughout North Carolina and South Carolina as well as in Alabama and Tennessee. (Jordan grew up in North Carolina and attended college there.)
The praise was sometimes muted. “I’d make it less drippy and soggy,” Inez Day of Kernersville, North Carolina, told The News and Record in 1991.
Franchisees that opted into offering the McJordan Special sometimes ran promotions. In North Carolina, customers could reduce the price of the burger by one cent for every point Jordan scored in Friday night games.
Eventually, McDonald’s moved the burger to the side to make room for another radical innovation: The McLean Deluxe, a burger with 91 percent fat-free beef. Less drippy and soggy, the comparatively healthier option didn’t stick around.
In 1993, McDonald’s brought the McJordan back for a limited time. (To keep up with its fast-food rival, Burger King tested a meatloaf sandwich around the same time that received somewhat mixed reviews for being more of a seasoned meat patty than an actual loaf.)
The McJordan Special never quite reached the heights of other novelty items, and largely disappeared after its ’93 run. But Jordan remains on a very short list of people who have had their name on the McDonald’s menu. In 2020, rapper Travis Scott partnered with the company to offer a Travis Scott Meal, which was his preferred order (a Quarter Pounder with cheese and bacon, medium fries with a side of barbeque sauce, and a Sprite).
Whether people will remember the Scott meal as fondly as the McJordan remains to be seen. In 2012, a former McDonald’s manager named Mort Bank of Bismarck, North Dakota, sold a jug of barbeque sauce used for the McJordan for $10,000, a nostalgic sum for a long-expired container of ossified sugar. Bank called it “probably edible.” The buyer, he said, was from Chicago.