The real story behind McDonald's mysterious 'Gold Card' — the ticket to unlimited free fast food that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have in their wallets
When Rob Lowe appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live with a golden McDonald's card last year, one big question remained: How could the Average Joe get his own card that granted him access to unlimited McDonald's?
Not easily, a little sleuthing revealed.
The first complication: Rob Lowe's Gold Card was not issued by McDonald's corporate office. Instead, it is from the owner of, and can only be used at, McDonald's franchises in Santa Barbara or Goleta, California.
While Lowe says he received the Gold Card because his buddy's dad created the McMuffin, McDonald's confirmed to Business Insider that he in fact received the card from David Peterson — the buddy in question, who is now a McDonald's franchisee himself.
Herb Peterson, who passed away in 2008, was a legendary force in the fast-food world. He debuted the first Egg McMuffin at the Santa Barbara McDonald's he co-owned with David in 1972. Peterson started his work with McDonald's as the vice president of the company's advertising firm, D'Arcy Advertising, and went on to become a franchisee and operator of six McDonald's locations.
Today, David Peterson has carried on his father's legacy with the chain. Earlier this year, the franchises he runs in the Santa Barbara and Goleta areas became some of the first to launch "taste-crafted" sandwiches as part of the McDonald's turnaround plan, reports local news station KEYT.
Peterson also wields the power to give out Gold Cards, granting the recipient free McDonald's at the locations he owns and operates. While Lowe is quite likely the most high-profile person to be awarded the card, he is not the first — just the first to brag about it on late-night TV.
For example, Larry Crandell was awarded a Gold Card by Peterson on his 90th birthday, reports SantaBarbara.com.While the cards are nearly identical, unlike Lowe's card, Crandell's awarded him free McDonald's for life.
Crandell is a bit of a celebrity in Santa Barbara, having reportedly helped raise millions of dollars for the community as a volunteer and expert emcee.
Assuming you aren't a famous actor who has a personal connection with David Peterson or a local legend in Santa Barbara, California, there are other ways to get free McDonald's.
In fact, McDonald's franchisees across the country appear to be more than happy to give local heroes free food with their own versions of the "Gold Card."
Warren Buffett told CNBChe had a McDonald's card that allowed him to order unlimited food for free in Omaha.
Charles Ramsey, who ditched his half-eaten Big Mac to help rescue three kidnapped women in May 2013, was awarded free McDonald's at all locations for a year and unlimited McDonald's for the rest of his life at local Ohio restaurants.
In March, Ottawa Senators goalie Andrew Hammond, nicknamed the Hamburglar, received a card that gave him free McDonald's for life from an Ottawa franchisee who, coincidentally, was also the father of Hammond's former coach.
However, there are only two major confirmed stories of people in possession of cards granting them free, unlimited McDonald's anywhere in the country, or even the world.
While on the campaign trail in 2012, Mitt Romney told a story of how his father had a "little pink card" that awarded him free McDonald's for life. McDonald's confirmed that founder Ray Kroc had given Romney the card, but did not have any record of the reason for the gift. However, the chain noted that Kroc was known to informally gift these Lifetime "Be Our Guest" cards to various people throughout the years.
The other lucky recipient of a lifetime of free McDonald's — not a little pink card, but a bona fide Gold Card, according to the company — is Bill Gates. According to Warren Buffett, Gates' card works worldwide. Of course, it is unclear how often Gates stops by McDonald's these days, after The Gates Foundation Asset Trust liquidated its position in the fast-food company in February 2015.
Getting your hands on a McDonald's Gold Card is no piece of cake. But, the legendary cards are real — and something that could end up in your own pocket, if you befriend the right McDonald's franchisee.