The Happy Meal concept was started by the now-defunct chain, Burger Chef.

By Meghan Overdeep
February 21, 2019
Library of Congress/John Margolies

Happy Meals are about as synonymous with McDonald's as its giant golden arches. But that wasn’t always the case.

As it turns out, the iconic boxed kid’s meal was invented by another fast food chain, the now-defunct Burger Chef.

Inspired by the success of McDonald's and Burger King, brothers Donald and Frank Thomas opened Burger Chef, their take on the fast food trend, in Indianapolis in 1958. By December 1967, Burger Chef had become the second largest restaurant chain in the entire country. By 1969, it had 1,000 restaurants across the country.

In 1973, while Burger Chef was at its peak, it introduced the concept of the kids' meal. As Business Insider reports, the "Fun Meal" was the first fast-food meal to bundle burgers with a dessert and a toy. Burger Chef’s pioneering Fun Meal even had a mascot and cartoon characters, including a magician named Burgerini and a vampire named Count Fangburger.

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McDonald's didn’t introduce its Happy Meal until five years later, in 1979, prompting a lawsuit from Burger Chef.

It was around this time that Burger Chef began to struggle financially. In 1982, Hardee's purchased the chain’s remaining 260 locations for $44 million, and almost all of Burger Chef's restaurants were closed or turned into Hardee's.

The last Burger Chef franchise, located in Cookeville, Tennessee, shut its doors in 1996.

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