In the mid-1950s, Burger King had only a few struggling outlets in Florida, plagued with hamburger-broiling contraptions that frequently broke down.
Dave Edgerton, one of the founders, was running out of patience. Finally, incensed with yet another machine meltdown, he pulled a hatchet from his toolbox and smashed one of the stainless steel cookers, according to a memoir by his partner, James McLamore. Mr. Edgerton then bellowed: “I can build a better machine than this pile of junk.”
His tantrum was the start of a turnaround that put Burger King on track to become a serious rival to McDonald's Corp. Mr. Edgerton found a mechanic and made good on his vow to design a more reliable broiler. The partners also came up with a bigger, sloppier and tastier sandwich: the Whopper.
Mr. Edgerton died April 3 in Miami of complications from surgery after a recent fall. He was 90. He and Mr. McLamore understood the role of children in deciding where families eat. In 1958, they sponsored a local children's TV program featuring a chimpanzee called Mr. Moke who devoured Whoppers whenever given the chance.
David Russell Edgerton Jr. was born May 26, 1927, in Lebanon, Pa. His father was an expert in heat treatment of metals; his mother was a concert violinist. The younger Mr. Edgerton served in the U.S. Army, attended Cornell University's hotel management school and studied business at Northwestern University.
After a spell managing Howard Johnson's restaurants, he was interested in opening a Dairy Queen franchise. Then he met Keith Cramer and Matthew Burns, who were setting up a chain called Insta Burger in Jacksonville, Fla. Mr. Edgerton dropped the Dairy Queen idea and decided to cooperate with the two men. He persuaded them to change the name to Insta Burger King.
Mr. Edgerton invested about $20,000 (the equivalent of about $186,000 today) in a company to set up Burger King restaurants in Miami in 1954. Mr. McLamore, a Miami restaurant owner, soon joined as a partner.
Mr. Edgerton was creative and “extraordinarily bright” but had little interest in financial details, Mr. McLamore wrote in “The Burger King,” a memoir published after he died in 1996. Mr. McLamore recalled that his partner's idea of keeping the books was to stash receipts in a peach crate. Mr. Edgerton was under the impression that the first outlet was profitable; an accountant engaged by Mr. McLamore found it was deeply in the red.
Burger King needed something to differentiate itself from other burger joints. During a visit to Gainesville, Fla., Mr. McLamore spotted a dingy-looking drive-in with a line of customers out front. He and Mr. Edgerton tried the stand's quarter-pound hamburgers with tomatoes, mayonnaise, pickles, onions and ketchup. They quickly decided to make their own big and lavishly garnished hamburger. The 39-cent Whopper was an instant hit.
Messrs. Edgerton and McLamore eventually gained nationwide control of the chain from their early partners. Mr. McLamore served as president. Mr. Edgerton was executive vice president and wrote a manual for franchisees.
In 1967, they agreed to sell Burger King to Pillsbury Co. for Pillsbury shares valued at about $19 million. At that time, there were about 225 Burger King restaurants, nearly all in the U.S. At the end of 2017, the total was 16,767 world-wide.
The chain is now part of Restaurant Brands International Inc., owned by 3G Capital Partners, a Brazilian private-equity firm that acquired Burger King in 2010 for $3.3 billion.
Mr. Edgerton later told friends he could have made a much bigger fortune if he hadn't sold Burger King so soon.
After leaving Burger King, he built a small chain of steakhouse restaurants. He also invested in restaurants in Florida and California and was a minority partner in Fuddruckers franchises in Florida.
His marriage to Kerstin Birgitta Andersson, a former Pan American flight attendant from Sweden, ended in divorce, but they remained friends. He had no children.
Until the end of his life, he loved going out for dinner and could be relied on to spot any lapses in quality and service, friends said.