McDonald’s Happy Meal – Who Actually Created It?

Happy Meal

The Happy Meal’s origins are disputed. It shows creative individuals from across the globe having the same insight at the same moment.

Almost everyone has fond recollections of McDonald’s from their youth, and the Happy Meal is largely responsible for this. The legacy of joy and levity that the Happy Meal has left behind is priceless.

Since the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Happy Meal are murky at best. It’s a picture of ingenious people from all around the world who all had the same epiphany at about the same time.

The Happy Meal co-creator credit goes to Yolanda Cofino, head of McDonald’s in Guatemala. She worked as McDonald’s Guatemala president   Although Jose Maria Cofino, the original McDonald’s founder in Guatemala, passed away in 1995, his wife Yolanda came up with the concept for the “Ronald’s Menu” in 1977. It had a burger, fries, a Coke, and a sundae, all small. She augmented it with some little toys she had picked up at the shop. Instead of using a box, she just put everything on a tray. When McDonald’s first opened in Guatemala, nobody had heard of the company or the Big Mac. And there would be a small child attempting to eat a Big Mac even though he had no idea what the name of the burger meant. Thus, she proposed the idea of a child-sized dinner, which would be ordered by parents but would be just right for their children to eat on their own.

Yolanda Cofino

She didn’t feel the need to get approval from the Oak Brook management to make Ronald’s Menu, but she did pitch it to them in 1977 at a McDonald’s marketing meeting in Chicago. In 1982, McDonald’s gave her a silver statue of Ronald McDonald as a thank-you for her work on the Happy Meal and for making kids more familiar with the McDonald’s name.

Whatever the case may be, it is certain that McDonald’s was confronted with a major challenge, namely, marketing to children, and that other individuals had similar ideas about how to solve this issue.

The firm paid Joe Johnston, an advertising specialist from Cleveland, Ohio, $700 to study the problem, and Johnston proposed the concept of a bag with activities printed on it. But Burger Chef, which is one of McDonald’s main fast food competitors, had a bigger effect on the company. The burger chain’s Fun Meal, which included a burger, fries, a sweet treat, and a Coke, was first offered to customers in 1973 and packaged in a cardboard box decorated with games, riddles, and comic strips. A little vinyl record or toy was also commonly included. In 1978, Burger Chef even struck it big by securing the rights to produce a Star Wars Fun Meal, which may have been the first example of a significant movie tie-in with a fast food kid’s item.

In the same way, McDonald’s restaurants in different parts of the United States have tried out similar ideas, like “trick-or-treat” bags and “Mayor McCheese” gifts.

St. Louis’s regional advertising manager, Dick Brams, heard about the Burger Chef concept and thought it was clever, so he got in touch with Bob Bernstein in Kansas City.

Bernstein, whose advertising agency handled McDonald’s stores in the Midwest and Southwest, had been working on a children’s meal for some time. He claims the idea for the Happy Meal occurred to him in 1975 as he watched his kid read the cereal box at the breakfast table. The ritual began each morning with him. With the intention of entertaining children, as they wait for their McDonald’s meals, he decided to design a special box.

original happy meal

Franchisees told Bernstein in a meeting that “moms needed something easy to manage,” and the franchisees sought to simplify the hectic process of ordering kids’ meals. He then proceeded to trademark the phrases “Happy Cups,” “Happy Plates,” etc., for use on other tableware items. He worked out a biscuit agreement with Keebler, commissioning artists and designers who specialize in children’s literature to create a package.

He even trademarked “Happy Meal,” which he subsequently sold to McDonald’s for $1. He claimed to have been paid $5,000 for his idea.

McDonald’s first launched the Happy Meal in select markets in 1977 and 1978, including Kansas City, Phoenix, and Denver, before rolling it out nationwide in 1979.

A hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, cookies, and a soft drink were included in each box, which was decorated to look like a circus wagon. For just $1.15, you could get your hands on a “special reward” that’s just one of many random trinkets. In the toy section, youngsters could uncover a McDoodler stencil, McWrist wallet, ID bracelet, puzzle lock, spinning top, or an eraser shaped like a figure from McDonaldland. Later that year, McDonald’s signed its first Happy Meal licensing arrangement, offering a Star Trek: The Motion Picture tie-in item to coincide with the debut of the film. 

In 1988, at the age of 45, McDonald’s employee and Midwest advertising manager Dick Brams passed away. He was memorialized as the “father of the Happy Meal.” Bernstein claims the firm claimed Brams came up with the Happy Meal here, although “Dick did a lot, but after the Happy Meal had already been conceived.”

From the very beginning, it was clear that the Happy Meal would spark debate—or, more accurately, food conflicts. Fast food chains have been at each other’s throats since the Happy Meal’s introduction to the masses; Burger Chef sued McDonald’s for copying its Fun Meals, and McDonald’s sued Burger King for copying its Happy Meals to introduce Big Kids Meals. Yet, questions about healthfulness were at the heart of most debates. In 2002, teens in New York sued McDonald’s, saying Happy Meals led to their obesity. In 2010, a class-action lawsuit in California alleged McDonald’s used toys to unfairly tempt youngsters to purchase unhealthy items (the complaint was rejected).

Who conceived the idea? Some of the solutions may have been found in the past. Perhaps inspired by Burger Chef’s Fun Meal, McDonald’s set out to develop their version. About the same time that Yolanda was providing a kiddie menu choice to children, Bernstein was developing the idea into the Happy Meal. Everyone offered a unique perspective.


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