The Man Behind Your Favorite (Or Least Favorite) Fast Foods

“Tardiness is not something you can do all on your own. Many, many people contributed to my tardiness. Uh, I’d like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, the LA city bus driver for taking a chance on an unknown kid, and, uh, last but not least, the wonderful crew at McDonald’s for spending hours making those Egg McMuffins, without which I might never be tardy.” —Travis, “Clueless” (1995)

In A Nutshell

Are you a fan of stuffed crust pizza? Do you start off each day with a sausage, egg, and cheese McGriddle? Well, then you need to thank Tom Ryan, the man who invented some of the planet’s most popular (and hated) fast foods.

The Whole Bushel

Tom Ryan is a pretty divisive guy. You either love him or you hate him. After all, he’s the “culinary mad scientist” who revolutionized the fast-food industry. Seriously, if you’ve ever ordered takeout from Pizza Hut or grabbed breakfast at McDonald’s, you owe Tom Ryan a debt of fatty gratitude.

Back in his college days, Ryan was a pre-med student who didn’t really want to be a doctor. Instead, he wanted to build and create, and that’s when he stumbled upon food science. Totally excited, Ryan earned a Masters in Lipid Toxicology and a PhD in Flavor and Fragrance Chemistry. Once he left Michigan State University, he got busy working on stuff like Jif peanut butter and Pillsbury pizza dough. However, the man really made his mark on the world when he got a job at Pizza Hut.

As the chain’s Director of New Products, Ryan unleashed the Lover’s Line upon that world. Yes, that Meat Lover’s pizza you’re currently craving is all thanks to this guy. But that wasn’t Ryan’s only contribution to the world of Americanized Italian cuisine. After years in the food business, Ryan had learned two important things about pizza. First, everybody loves cheese. Second, lots of people hate the crust. And that’s when Ryan had a pizza epiphany.

What if he combined the two?

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After a little experimenting, the stuffed-crust pizza hit the market, and according to its creator, “did like a billion-plus in its first year.” However, the fast-food master wasn’t finished cooking up heart attack magic quite yet. Eventually, Ryan ended up at McDonald’s where he was faced with a difficult problem. Turns out the restaurant needed some help with their breakfast menu. Sure, they had eggs and sausage, but nothing you could hold while you were driving to work.

That’s when Ryan invented the McGriddle. Basically a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast in your hand, the McGriddle pancakes were unique thanks to an infusion of maple crystals which melted when heated to a particular temperature. Thanks to the crystals, people could enjoy the taste of syrup without worrying about the mess. On top of everything else, Ryan also developed a special muffin tin that imprints every McGriddle cake with those iconic golden arches.

Believe it or not, these are just a few of Ryan’s crazy contributions to the world of fast food. He also invented the McDonald’s Yogurt Parfait, Quizno’s Steakhouse Beef Dip, and even started Smashburger, his very own restaurant chain.

Now, it’s true the man does get a bit of criticism these days for contributing to the obesity epidemic in the US, but Ryan doesn’t really feel all that responsible. When asked if he felt any guilt about creating the incredibly unhealthy foods, he responded with a hearty no. “It would be like regretting my role as a winemaker because of alcoholism,” he said. “I didn’t design it for people to abuse. I designed it because people really enjoy it.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Yusuke Kawasaki
First We Feast: From Stuffed Crust To Smashburger: Inside The Mind Of A Fast-Food Savant
The Sporkful: Inside the Mind of a Culinary Mad Scientist