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.

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

Happy Meals have become part of popular culture.
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.