In 2009, the McDonald’s Happy Meal, which helped to revolutionize kids meals for many restaurants, turns thirty, but it was by no means the first regular kids meal to be created. That honor goes to Burger Chef, which in the 1970s created the Fun Meal, a meal especially designed for children. It was the Fun Meal that was a revolution in and of itself in several ways, but it would ultimately fall to the Happy Meal’s reign, as would the Burger Chef chain itself. What was the Fun Meal, exactly, and what accomplishments did it achieve in its life? This article has all the information that you seek.
The Fun Meal was a tray like box which contained the typical fast food meal of a burger, fries, and soda. Inside the box were cardboard cut-out illustrations which kids could punch out and make into toys. As with the Happy Meals, these boxes also contained various other activities, such as finding hidden objects, in settings such as a haunted house, a jungle, and a pirate ship. Burger Chef and Jeff, the company’s mascots, were featured on the boxes as well as in Burger Chef commercials. On some occasions, more themed promotions were used including one that allowed children to build their own town, and in its later years, boats used as the food containers as well as the premiums.
An important first for the fast food industry came in 1978, when Fun Meal toys based on Star Wars were released, marking the first time that a licensed property was used in a fast food promotion. Children could create robots, models, and more out of the cut outs on the boxes. Many fast food companies have continued to rely on popular licenses since then not only for kids meals, but also for contests and special giveaways like posters and glasses. McDonald’s would jump on the licensing bandwagon not long after introducing the Happy Meal with a promotion based on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and has done Happy Meals based on a variety of properties ever since.
It was the invention of the Fun Meal that inspired McDonald’s to come up with the Happy Meal, which was tested in various regions in the late 1970s before being unleashed nationwide in 1979. This was a major part of the downfall of Burger Chef, as it was the Happy Meal’s success that increased McDonald’s popularity and inspired Burger King, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and many other chains to come up with their own kids meals. Throughout the 1980s, Burger Chef suffered financial difficulties, and many former restaurants would end up being turned into Hardee’s restaurants (whose kids meals subsequently adopted the Fun Meal moniker). By 1996, the last of the Burger Chef restaurants were gone, while McDonald’s and the Happy Meal would continue to thrive to the present day.
Today, memories of Burger Chef can be found throughout the Internet. Blogs about Burger Chef and the Fun Meal toys tell tales of how things were before the Happy Meal came along. Commercials from the chain’s heyday have wound up on YouTube for people to reminisce about the good old days, while giving younger viewers a look back at a world where McDonald’s had yet to be the one true fast food king. The Fun Meal toys, as with kids meals toys from other chains, are considered collector’s items and can be found on e-bay, in flea markets, and elsewhere. In this respect, the Burger Chef legacy is still alive and well, even if the chain itself is long gone.
What if McDonald’s had not come up with the Happy Meal? Would Burger Chef and Jeff have become more recognizable than Ronald McDonald? Would other fast food chains still have been inspired to try their own kids meals? Would we be seeing far more of the Burger Chef logo and way less of the Golden M? Alas, we shall never know, as the restaurant that was the forefather of kids meals was ironically overtaken by one in a relatively short time. It has created quite a profitable feature of restaurants, since to this day kids still look forward to collecting all of the toys in various meals. Even so, the Burger Chef chain is gone, and those who fondly remember it can only watch as McDonald’s and its competitors keep getting bigger, while one of its former competitors has already lost the battle for all time.