Arch Rivals: Unboxing the History of the McDonald's Happy Meal

The McDonald's Happy Meal has a murky history.
The McDonald's Happy Meal has a murky history.
McDonald's

Bob Bernstein was getting annoyed with his son. It was the mid-1970s, and Bernstein, an advertising executive based in Kansas City, watched as 10-year-old Steve applied the same ritualistic approach to his breakfast. Each morning, Steve would pour himself a bowl of cereal then sit at the table staring at the cereal box. He read the front, the back, and the sides, over and over again.

When his father asked him about this seemingly peculiar routine, Steve explained that “It’s just something to do.”

Bernstein realized Steve was no outlier. Unlike adults, who prefer to socialize and chat, kids liked looking at something while they ate. He kept this lesson in mind when McDonald’s tasked him with developing a child-friendly meal package that would hopefully entice younger consumers into eating at the restaurant more often.

By 1979, Bernstein’s Happy Meal was being rolled out nationally, and would go to become an indelible part of the fast food franchise’s business model. Tucked into a cardboard box full of illustrations, games, and puzzles was a complete meal, plus a toy.

But Bernstein’s claim of sole Happy Meal authorship has been hotly debated over the decades. In fact, no fewer than four entities, including one Guatemalan franchisee and one pioneering burger joint, have made a convincing argument that they, not Bernstein, were responsible for this contribution to popular and gastronomic culture.

 

In the early 1970s, McDonald’s didn’t have an organized outreach program for marketing to children. While the fictional McDonaldland and characters like Mayor McCheese and Grimace appeared in commercials, the actual menu wasn’t particularly kid-friendly. Parents and employees were to forced to watch helplessly as younger customers gave slapdash orders, cobbling together a meal from the menu. It exasperated adults, who wanted to get in and out more quickly, as well as restaurant franchisees, who felt the company could be doing more to attract kids.

The McDonald's logo is pictured
McDonald's wasn't always marketing directly to kids. That changed in the 1970s.
McDonald's

The company asked Cleveland, Ohio, advertising expert Joe Johnston to research the problem; he came up with the idea of a sack that had activities on the packaging. But a bigger influence for McDonald’s was one of their biggest fast-food competitors, Burger Chef. In 1973, the burger chain introduced its Fun Meal, a cardboard box with games, riddles, and comic strips that housed a burger, fries, a sugary treat, and a soda. There was also frequently a toy or small vinyl record inside. In 1978, Burger Chef had even scored big with a license for a Star Wars Fun Meal, possibly the first example of a major movie tie-in with a fast food kid’s item.

The Fun Meal definitely pre-dates Bernstein’s assertion that he came up with the Happy Meal in 1975 or 1976, which was when he had been assigned the task by McDonald’s St. Louis regional advertising manager Dick Brams. In fact, Paul Schrage, the senior vice president of McDonald’s, was aware of the Fun Meal and so was Brams. It was Brams who directed Bernstein to come up with a way for McDonald’s to offer a menu option just for kids.

Whether Bernstein knew about the Fun Meal or simply used his son’s cereal box habits to inform his choices is unclear: In 2019, Bernstein told the Chicago Tribune that he had already been working on a design for a kid-friendly menu item when Brams contacted him. What we do know is that Bernstein developed a pre-sorted kid’s meal that was served in a cardboard box featuring puzzles, jokes, and games. (Bernstein trademarked the Happy Meal name, though he later transferred it to McDonald’s for $1.)

After two years of market testing in cities like Kansas City, Phoenix, and Denver in 1977 and 1978, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal to the rest of America in 1979. Each box, which had a circus wagon theme, came with a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a soft drink. Inside the $1.15 box was a “special prize” that was one of several novelty items. Kids could find a McDoodler stencil, a McWrist wallet, an ID bracelet, a puzzle lock, a spinning top, or a McDonaldland character eraser. Later that year, the company entered into its first Happy Meal licensing agreement, issuing a Happy Meal tie-in for the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Happy Meals have been a perpetual presence at McDonald’s ever since.

To Bernstein’s chagrin, Brams’s death in 1988 brought with it reports that Brams was the “father” of the Happy Meal. In fact, Bernstein had been given a bronze Happy Meal in acknowledgment of his efforts the previous year. He gently disputed the claim, saying that Brams became involved with the Happy Meal only after it had been conceptualized. Certainly, the two could have differing viewpoints on how much each brought to the assignment of creating a marketing strategy for kids.

But any combination of Brams and Bernstein leaves out one crucial contribution in the Happy Meal timeline: the work of Yolanda Fernandez de Cofiño, a onetime Guatemalan McDonald’s operator and now president of McDonald’s Guatemala, and the individual McDonald’s credits for being the originator of the Happy Meal.

 

Yolanda's husband, José María Cofiño, founded the first McDonald’s in Guatemala in 1974. Yolanda noticed that customers, particularly younger ones, didn’t have a full understanding of how McDonald’s labeled their food. A kid might order a Big Mac not knowing it was a substantial burger.

To solve the problem, Yolanda created Ronald’s Menu in 1977. It was a way of designating a fun food order for children and consisted of a burger, fries, soda, and a sundae. Yolanda added a toy or novelty item that she had purchased at a local market. However, Yolanda’s idea didn’t include an illustrated box; Ronald’s Menu was served on a tray.

Yolanda claimed she presented the idea of the kid’s menu during a McDonald’s marketing conference in Chicago in 1977, the same year the company began market-testing Bernstein’s Happy Meal in select cities. In 1982, the company gave her a silver Ronald McDonald statue for developing the Happy Meal as well as raising the brand’s profile among children.

It seems as though McDonald’s was faced with a key problem—marketing to kids—and that several people had a similar approach as to how best to address it. While Yolanda conceived of offering a toy with a meal, it was Bernstein who was conceptualized the McDonald’s Happy Meal packaging, and it was Brams who stayed busy securing toy deals for the Happy Meal in the years to come.

Actress Marsai Martin is pictured holding a McDonald's Happy Meal at the McDonald's premiere after party for 'The Lion King' at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California in July 2019
Happy Meals have become part of popular culture.
Erik Voake, Getty Images for McDonald's

Naturally, Burger Chef had a different interpretation. In 1979, shortly before the Happy Meal was scheduled to roll out nationally, the company sued McDonald’s for $5.5 million for infringing on their Fun Meal idea. The lawsuit fizzled out, however, and the ailing Burger Chef franchise was eventually absorbed by Hardee’s in 1982.

By 2017, McDonald’s was selling an average of 3.2 million Happy Meals daily, which have been stuffed over the years with everything from Transformers to Teenie Beanie Babies, which were greeted with high consumer demand in 1996. Collectors covet original Happy Meal toys and particularly the boxes, which were frequently thrown away and consequently became valuable when found intact.

Who was responsible for those boxes? History has a few answers. In all likelihood, McDonald’s took note of Burger Chef’s Fun Meal and wanted to create something similar. Bernstein shaped that notion into the Happy Meal around the same time Yolanda was offering a value menu option to kids. Like McDonald’s itself, which was opened by Richard and Maurice McDonald but brought to new heights by Ray Kroc, everyone had something to contribute.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Chuck E. Cheese Disguises Itself as Pasqually's Pizza & Wings on Delivery Apps

gsheldon/iStock via Getty Images
gsheldon/iStock via Getty Images

Chuck E. Cheese is best known for its arcades, ball pits, and birthday parties—things that have become health hazards during the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant part of the chain is less beloved, but it's the only component of the business that's still allowed to operate under some capacity. To keep revenue flowing while doors are closed, Chuck E. Cheese has transitioned to delivery—but you won't see its name on GrubHub or Seamless. As Food & Wine reports, the chain is delivering food under the name Pasqually's Pizza & Wings to broaden its appeal.

Reddit user u/KendallNeff uncovered the sneaky rebranding after she placed an order from what she thought was a local pizzeria in Philadelphia. When her food arrived, it looked suspiciously familiar. A text to her delivery person revealed that the pizza had come from a Chuck E. Cheese location with signs for "Pasqually's Pizza & Wings" in windows. The Redditor did some research of her own and found that Pasqually's and Chuck E. Cheese shared an address, and that Pasqually P. Pieplate was the name of a fictional chef in Chuck E. Cheese's cast of characters.

Chuck E. Cheese denies any deception on their part. In a statement to Food & Wine, the company said that while Pasqually's "shares kitchen space with the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant," it's a distinct offshoot of the brand. They also claim that the product sold under the Pasqually's label "is a different pizza that features a thicker crust and extra sauce," compared to what's served in the arcades.

One way to avoid falling for misleading names in delivery apps is to look up restaurants and call them directly. This saves small business from paying extra fees, and it gives you a better idea of what you're getting. Of course, if you're feeling nostalgic for Chuck E. Cheese, a taste of their pizza at home may be just what you need—and now you know how to find them.

[h/t Food & Wine]