The Forgotten Fast Food Giant That Inspired Happy Meal Toys

The Cactus Plant Flea Market Boxes, better known as Adult Happy Meals, were a massive win for McDonald's in 2022. The return of McDonald's Halloween Boo Buckets has sent the internet into a frenzy multiple years in a row. And nostalgic customers were roped in by the McNugget Buddies' comeback in 2023.


It's fair to say McDonald's knows how to pull in customers with Happy Meal toy memories. The chain's marketing strategy is something I've praised probably far too often, but long before the Golden Arches found its secret formula for instant campaign success — a combination of celebrity and nostalgia — there was Burger Chef.

Burger Chef was a fast food chain founded in the mid-1950s which ran its course until the early 1980s, when it was sold off to Hardee's and eventually shuttered. Long before that sale, though, Burger Chef had the Fun Meal. The Fun Meal was first introduced in 1973 and consisted of a burger, a dessert, and a toy. The toys included items like yo-yos, and the Fun Meal also brought about the creation of characters, like a magician called Burgerini and a vampire named Count Fangburger. For millennials like myself, fast food-themed cartoon characters might sound a lot like ripoffs of the McDonaldland classic characters we know and love. But, alas, it's Burger Chef's creations that are the true OGs.


Burger Chef started it all

When you drill down into the history of fast food, Burger Chef's Fun Meal predates McDonald's iconic Happy Meal by six years. Although the Fun Meal was the first to pair food with a toy for kids, the key difference is that it did not come in a special branded box as the Happy Meal later did.


In 2022, CNN spoke with the inventor of the Happy Meal, Bob Bernstein, who noted that McDonald's actually had to be talked into adopting his Happy Meal idea. The corporate offices wanted to run extensive tests of the meals, and franchisees were concerned the toys and box assembly would disrupt their operations.

Although Bernstein and his team managed to get McDonald's to test the Happy Meal at several locations in 1977, it wasn't released on a national scale until 1979. Similar to Burger Chef's Fun Meal, it contained a burger, fries, cookies, a soda, and a surprise toy, plus various interactive designs on the outside of the box to entertain kids.

McDonald's Happy Meal is still here

Around the time McDonald's rolled out the Happy Meal across the country, Burger Chef had 1,200 U.S. locations, and McDonald's had 1,600, which placed the chef just behind Ronald McDonald in terms of footprint. Burger Chef was hot on the heels of McDonald's for some time, but as with any large chain, not all of its history is french fries and smiles.


In 1978, the mysterious and still-unsolved murders of four employees took place at a Burger Chef restaurant in the chain's home state of Indiana. Just a few years later, in 1981, Burger Chef's parent company General Foods chose to sell the chain to Hardee's, which eventually dismantled and rebranded the restaurants. The rest is fast food toy history. Despite the chain eventually fizzling out as a whole, it's best to remember that the Burger Chef Fun Meal walked so McDonald's Happy Meal could run.