Most fast-food and fast-casual restaurants have a kids’ meal or menu, but none are as iconic as the McDonald’s Happy Meal. How can you not be happy with your meal when it’s served to you in a fun-shaped box and comes with a free toy?
But as recognizable as the Happy Meal is, it wasn’t the first of its kind. In fact, McDonald’s didn’t even invent the concept of a kids’ meal. The fast-food chain behind the genius idea was Burger Chef.
Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. Burger Chef hit its stride back in the 1960s and early ‘70s and even gave McDonald’s a run for its money. Unfortunately, it hit a fast decline after a couple of failed lawsuits. Hundreds of locations closed, and Hardee’s bought out the remaining ones in 1982. The last Burger Chef franchise closed in 1996.
Yet in its heyday, Burger Chef made drastic improvements to the fast-food industry—not the least of which was the invention of the kids’ meal in 1973. The Fun Meal, as the chain called it, included a small burger, a drink, fries, a dessert, and a small toy (plastic vinyl records were also a regular prize inside). This all came in a colorful box decorated with riddles and cartoon strips, featuring characters like a magician named Burgerini and a vampire named Count Fangburger. The chain also secured what metv.com calls the “licensing deal of the decade” when it partnered with Star Wars in 1978 on seven different kids’ meals inspired by a galaxy far far away. C-3PO and R2-D2 even appeared in Burger Chef commercials. Find out how much these classic fast-food items used to cost.
Fast-food innovations were how the chain got its start in the first place. According to Business Insider, Donald and Frank Thomas of General Equipment Company decided to open a store to demonstrate their machinery, which included soft-serve ice cream and patented flame-broiling equipment. It proved so successful that the brothers eventually opened it as a restaurant called Burger Chef in 1958. It became the first chain to sell a burger-fries-and-drink combo meal. By the early ‘70s, the only fast-food chain with more locations nationwide was McDonald’s.
Unfortunately for Burger Chef, its top competitor ultimately won out. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal in 1979, and Burger Chef unsuccessfully sued for appropriating the idea of the Fun Meal. Two years later, the company sued Burger King over its Fun School Meal and settled out of court, The Indianapolis Star reports. Here are 10 more fast-food scandals that rocked the industry.
Burger Chef’s success only went downhill from there, its name all but forgotten. Yet its legacy silently lives on in every fun-sized meal that makes a young burger-lover happy. Next, check out these 16 modern McDonald’s Happy Meal foods from around the world.