“Ronald Menu”: how a Guatemalan housewife came up with Happy Meal for McDonald’s

One of the iconic McDonald’s products that left the Russian market is the Happy Meal children’s sets: small portions of food, a drink and a toy. The writing is usually attributed to the company’s merchants – sometimes Dick Brahms, sometimes Bob Bernstein. But a few years before its official release worldwide, such sets were sold at the chain restaurants in Guatemala. They were invented by Yolanda Fernandez de Cofiño, a licensed mother with many children.

Yolanda was born in Chile in 1934 to a family of diplomats. After leaving school, she planned to study law, but was forced to postpone her studies due to illness – instead she started working at the Chilean Red Cross branch. When she was 19, her father was appointed ambassador to Guatemala and the whole family moved after him. Yolanda got married a year later.

For twenty years she led the life of an ordinary housewife and mother of many children, whom she always dreamed of. Until her husband bought the McDonald’s franchise in 1974. The chain’s restaurants operated throughout Latin America at the time – except Guatemala. The couple opened the first restaurant in the country in one of the central districts of the capital.

Food and toys

A few years later, Yolanda’s husband was ready to sell the facility – the business was not going well. However, she protested, saying that the opening of the restaurant was like another birth for her and she is not going to give up so easily. To help her husband, Yolanda joined the restaurant team and became involved in marketing. He later recalled: “I thought it was like running a household, only on a larger scale.”

To attract guests, the couple decided to turn the restaurant into a family restaurant. They managed to attract an audience, but there was a problem – the children could not handle large portions. Yolanda said the mothers who bought a burger for each of the three or four children were just throwing away money – she saw this as she delivered her orders to the hall.

Then Yolanda came up with a special menu – “Ronald’s Menu”, named after the network mascot – from a small hamburger, a small portion of potatoes, soda and dessert. To make it more interesting, I added a game. In the beginning, he recalls, they were cheap imitations stirred up in an area that locals called “where the Chinese are” or “where the Arabs are.” This area – Sona 10 – is now considered famous and the toys from the sets have become collectible.

Yolanda did not coordinate innovation with McDonald’s headquarters. Her representatives, who visited Guatemala in 1977, invited her to talk about baby kits at the franchise conference. Yolanda agreed, thinking it was a regional event for Latin America, but it turned out she had to talk to diners from around the world. The idea was also appreciated at the company’s headquarters in Chicago. It was then that Bob Bernstein created a branded red box, in which the new name of the set appeared: Happy Meal. “No, they did not consult me,” Yolanda recalls, noting that for a Hispanic such a name sounded strange.

However, he was invited to the committee that dealt with the selection of the toys. Among them were now licensed celebrity figurines – Disney, Warner Brothers, Hasbro and other major copyright holders became partners in different years. Since 2021, McDonald’s has sold more than 1 billion games annually as part of the Happy Meals. At the same time, it is not disclosed who pays who – the licensee to the licensor or vice versa.

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Holidays and awards

To improve her business strategy, Yolanda went to the University of Hamburger, McDonald’s corporate training center on the outskirts of Chicago. There, in one of the seminars, they talked about family vacations and someone suggested that a typical franchise restaurant is suitable for a party for six or seven children. “Then I raised my hand and said, ‘I can not celebrate with seven children, I only have five of my own,'” Yolanda recalls. In order for all the guests to have enough space, he organized special rooms for children’s parties in restaurants. This was another innovation that spread to McDonald’s around the world.

In 1999, when McDonald’s pilot Guatemala celebrated its 25th anniversary, Yolanda hosted McDia Feliz – on this day, all proceeds from the sale of the Big Mac go to charity. He spied on the idea in Canada, where such an action called Happy McDay took place. Since then, the event has become annual. In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 12 million Guatemalan quetzes were collected (equivalent to $ 1.5 million at the then exchange rate). Successful synchronization helps to achieve large collections: in Guatemala, the action takes place in October, when the country also celebrates Children’s Day. Yolanda Cofinho considered this action her main legacy.

Nevertheless, she remained a successful businesswoman. He turned a once-unprofitable company into a multinational company: in 2006 (already a widow) he acquired a franchise in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, forming McDonald’s Mesoamerica. For Happy Meal Ideas and Kids Party Rooms, he twice received the Ronald Award, a McDonald’s in-house award given to the best network providers.

In 2018, Yolanda Cofinho retired due to vision problems, leaving the business (and an office with an impressive collection of Happy Meal toys) to her children. He died in 2021 at the age of 87. McDia Feliz was dedicated to her memory that year.

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