CHICAGO — Summer of 2019 is a summer of monumental anniversaries, reminders that we were ambitious once (the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), and not always as cynical as we’ve become (the 50th anniversary of Woodstock); there are lessons in systemic cruelty (the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Chicago race riots), and also studies in self-determination (the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall demonstrations for gay rights) and later this year, genuine change (the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall).
But how do we think about the 40th anniversary of the McDonald’s Happy Meal?
Monumental? Game-changing? Cynical?
All of the above?
The object itself is ephemeral. Just cardboard and plastic and some loose french fries. There will be no CNN documentaries or coffee-table books that explore the meaning of the Happy Meal. And yet, possibly, the Happy Meal has played a larger part in your everyday life than the space race, a music festival in upstate New York or the decline of Soviet communism.
We could celebrate Happy Meals:
The past decade has seen McDonald’s introduce leaner versions, with apple slices and fewer fries per box; according to the Chicago-based company, more than 50% of Happy Meal customers in the United States now request milk, juice or water instead of a soft drink. There’s also a collector’s market for Happy Meal toys, reminding us of the value of nostalgia. Meanwhile, tucked inside that nostalgia, we also see a cultural artifact that, for many children — especially Gen Xers — offered a first bit of autonomy, their own food.
In a statement, Silvia Lagnado, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer, said: “Thanks to the Happy Meal, most adults associate McDonald’s with special childhood memories.” She added that the Happy Meal “created an incredibly valuable heritage in playfulness and fun.”
We could also bemoan Happy Meals:
In the late 1970s, it helped to cement the parameters of what was permissible when fast-food restaurants marketed to children. Later, it became Exhibit A for nutritionists eager to identify the causes of childhood obesity; indeed, the healthier Happy Meals of today are a response (several decades late) to the criticisms of the Happy Meal from the early 1980s. You might even say the Happy Meal — along with play dates, the end of free-range children and instructions for Legos — was one more small step to formatting childhood.
But there’s an even larger existential question here:
Who created the Happy Meal?
Go to the McDonald’s website and, among an extensive accounting of its milestones, there’s no Happy Meal. There are notes on the birth of Egg McMuffins (1975), the opening of Hamburger University in Elk Grove, Ill. (1961); they recognize the (Canadian) creation of the McFlurry (1995) and the launch of all-day breakfast (2015). But no Happy Meal, and considering how much Happy Meals contribute to the identity of McDonald’s — the company says 25% of its business is from families, and the data firm Sense360 once figured that, for a select period of 2017, McDonald’s was selling 3.2 million Happy Meals a day, creating $10 million in revenue daily — it’s an odd oversight.
Or just honest.
Filling a void
The creation of the Happy Meal was somewhat nebulous. It’s a portrait of far-flung creative people, recognizing the need for the same thing at roughly the same time.
Turning children into regulars at McDonald’s was the whole point. Joe Johnston, a Tulsa author and artist, was a Cleveland adman in the early 1970s.
“There was a sense (among McDonald’s franchise owners) that kids didn’t want to come to McDonald’s,” Johnston said. “There was a feeling McDonald’s was losing its connection to kids. There was no place to sit. Families took food to their cars. Kids were like, ‘This sucks, I want crayons.’ No one at McDonald’s was addressing it.”
He said the company gave him $700 to research ways to entice young families, and his agency came up with a McDonald’s “Fun Meal.” It was essentially a sack with puzzles and activities on the packaging. No toys.
“But toys, we learned, were key. Franchises were innovating. But they couldn’t afford millions of toys,” he said.
Actually, many of the cultural items we associate with McDonald’s didn’t start at the company’s headquarters (then in Oak Brook) but in local franchises around the country.
Shamrock Shakes started in Connecticut.
Big Macs, in Pittsburgh.
Filet-O-Fish, in Cincinnati.
By the mid-’70s, the idea of a children’s meal box (with a Cracker Jack-like prize) had been floating around the fast-food industry. Paul Schrage, who OK’d the Happy Meal to go national, says bluntly: “The idea (for the Happy Meal) came from our competitor, Burger Chef, which had been offering gifts to kids. Our regional ad manager in St. Louis, Dick Brams, was aware of this and thought it was a nifty idea, and he contacted a guy in Kansas City named Bob Bernstein.”
Of course, it’s more complicated than that: Bernstein, whose advertising firm handled McDonald’s restaurants in the Midwest and Southwest (and still does), had been working already on a kids meal.
He said: “I came up with the Happy Meal, in 1975, as I watched my son at the breakfast table reading his cereal box. He did it every morning. I thought, ‘We make a box for McDonald’s that holds a meal and gives kids things to do.’”
At a meeting with franchise owners, Bernstein heard that “moms needed something simple to handle” and restaurant owners wanted to streamline the often chaotic ordering of kids’ food. So he began trademarking cups, plates, lids as “Happy Cups,” “Happy Plates,” etc. He made a deal with Keebler for cookies; he hired children’s book illustrators and graphic designers to work on a box.
He wasn’t the first.
Perfecting an idea
As early as 1973, the Indianapolis-based Burger Chef had been offering its own Fun Meals that included a toy. (Burger Chef even had “Star Wars” boxes in 1978.) According to Meredith Williams, a Joplin, Missouri, collector of fast-food ephemera who wrote two guides to collecting Happy Meals, individual McDonald’s franchises around the country had tested similar concepts, from trick-or-treat packages and Mayor McCheese bags.
Still, Bernstein perfected the idea, Schrage said.
Before McDonald’s agreed to make the Happy Meal a national product, Bernstein’s Happy Meals were being tested and advertised for a couple of years in Kansas City, Phoenix and Denver. The ad executive even trademarked the Happy Meal name, then later transferred it to McDonald’s for $1. (He said he eventually received a $5,000 bonus for his creation).
During the summer of 1979, McDonald’s premiered the Happy Meal nationally. The first boxes were circus wagons. The first toys were tops, stencils, wallets, puzzles and erasers. And initially, meals included a hamburger or cheeseburger, fries, a soft drink and cookies.
So, there you go — Bob Bernstein of Kansas City, inventor of the Happy Meal.
He still keeps a bronze Happy Meal in his office, awarded by McDonald’s in 1987 — the inscription thanks him for “for bringing the Happy Meal, a bold idea,” to the company.
It gets weird
When Dick Brams died at 45 in 1988, the former McDonald’s employee, a popular figure in Midwest advertising, was celebrated at his funeral as “father of the Happy Meal.” Bernstein said it’s here that the company started to say the Happy Meal was Brams’ idea, “and that’s just not true — Dick did a lot, but after the Happy Meal had already been created.”
A 2009 touring exhibit of Happy Meal memorabilia, to mark its 30th anniversary, also identified Brams as “father of the Happy Meal.” Today, if you Google “inventor of the Happy Meal,” you are as likely to get Brams as Bernstein. When I asked a McDonald’s media contact who created the Happy Meal, the first name mentioned was Yolanda Fernandez.
She’s 84, president of McDonald’s Guatemala, and prefers to go by her husband’s last name, Cofino. Jose Maria Cofino founded the first McDonald’s in Guatemala in 1974 (he died in 1995), and in 1977, Yolanda created a “Ronald’s Menu” for the restaurant. It contained a hamburger, small fries, small Coke, small sundae. She added little toys that she bought at a local market. She packaged the whole thing on a tray, no box.
“The thing is, nobody here in Guatemala really knew McDonald’s when we started,” she said, “so they didn’t know what a Big Mac was. And because they really didn’t understand the name of the sandwiches, you would see a boy trying to finish a Big Mac. So I thought there should be a smaller meal, for a parent to order that a child could finish.”
She said she never asked Oak Brook executives for permission to create Ronald’s Menu, but in 1977, at a McDonald’s marketing conference in Chicago, she presented them with her idea. Bernstein said he began hearing only recently about Yolanda. He doesn’t doubt her — again, the idea was in the air — but he insists he invented the Happy Meal as we know it.
At first those toys were underwhelming plastic shrugs.
But as McDonald’s partnered with companies such as Disney and Mattel, the quality of the toys improved, and as the ads warned with any given promotion, kids had a “limited time” to collect ‘em all. By the 30th anniversary of the Happy Meal in 2009, fast food chains told the FTC that they were spending $341 million on the toys in its kids meals, which was more than half the total they spent marketing to children.
And so, by the early 1990s, there were so many Happy Meal toys, it fueled a McDonald’s Collectors Club, founded outside Toledo, Ohio, by Linda Gegorski a now-retied biology teacher and health inspector.
“For 20 years we held conventions,” she said, “and people came with toys McDonald’s only distributed regionally, which meant that you had rarities.”
A collectors market grew. Collectors became friends with toy designers, traded Happy Meal prototypes.
“But the boxes were worth more than the toys,” said Mike Fountaine, a retired McDonald’s franchise owner in Pennsylvania who amassed a 75,000-piece collection, including “90 percent” of all Happy Meals. “The boxes ended up in the trash, so boxes became rarer.”
Today’s Happy Meal features its nutritional standards. There’s no cheeseburger option. The fries are even smaller than a normal order of small fries. And instead of a cookie or a molten-hot apple pie, there’s a choice of apple slices or yogurt.
But rest assured, if you haven’t bought a Happy Meal in years, there is still a toy inside.