I know fast food is bad for me, but I’m a sucker. It’s not like they give away toys with toothpaste much these days, although Crest did with LEGO in the 1980s, and that’s another tirade. (And honestly a really slick idea that I’m amazed hasn’t made a comeback. Why NOT give kids an excuse to go through Colgate faster?) As a sub-category of toy collecting it’s woefully undercovered, yet has a rich history, a ton of regional collectibles, and it ties in to numerous other areas of the hobby. (You can’t have a complete Monster in my Pocket collection without knowing a little something about Hardee’s or Bob’s Big Boy.)
While I pop into these eateries (which I found out were called “QSR” or “Quick Service Restaurants” while sitting through toy industry marketing presentations), I haven’t made it a point to actively collect the stuff in quite some time. I’ll generally get a kid’s meal if I end up in a Burger King because it’s pretty cheap and the toy, despite being a toy collector, is usually pretty disposable. That and they don’t run as smoothly as McDonald’s, as in if I go to Burger King and the web site has Jurassic Park and the signs show Jurassic Park and what I get is a free ice cream cone because supposedly there are no toys (despite me seeing a kid with one in the dining area three minutes later), that’s not an ideal outcome.
Back when I used to eat there, notably 1998-2002, Chick-Fil-A had the absolutely worst toys. If you were lucky, anyway. Most of the stuff was “go gardening with mom” or vaguely wholesome ways to encourage activities with your parents, and another chunk of the stuff seemed to be Veggie Tales or cassette tapes (and this was in the late 1990s - CDs were normal/cheap/ubiquitous before 1995) featuring prerecorded stories about how video games are bad because they can eat up your time. As an adult this “time” issue holds some water, but as a kid I seem to remember the vast majority of my early years being slow, boring, lonely, and/or silent. I would love to know if any of these things actually put kids off of video gaming, and if I find one of these tapes in a box I’ll be sure to rip it so you can hear it. The coolest things I remember getting from Chick-Fil-A were suction cup planets you could stick to a mirror. I think I got the Sun and Jupiter.
McDonald’s typically had the best stuff, like a legendary line of nearly 3 3/4-inch Batman: The Animated Series action figures in the early 1990s, similarly sized He-Man figures in 2002, and a number of surprisingly high-quality cheap toys over the years. The best stuff was when they actually got a toy company involved, and until roughly 2002 or so you could get actual, real LEGO bricks with a burger, fries, and soda for about $2. In college, this happened a lot, and it was before Super Size Me came out. My roommate in freshman year was quite keen on McDonald’s so we went there a bunch, which started a semi-regular habit of eating there. In sophomore year, there was a McDonald’s in my dorm’s parking lot. I could literally throw a stone at it from my building. They had sacks of bricks so I’d go there fairly often - usually getting 2 Happy Meals at a time - and amassing a decent selection of bricks which went into whatever I was building that week. This continued beyond LEGO, so I ended up with numerous giant sacks of cheap plastic toys based on DragonBall Z, X-Men, Powerpuff Girls, and who the heck knows what else. I didn’t hang on to a lot of these, other than the ones that were “real toys.” The last time I remember being genuinely enamored with collecting anything at McDonald’s was a line of small Bionicle sets when the line debuted, as these were using real LEGO parts for the first Matoran figures. I even called around to see which stores had the ones I was missing, and I got a few extras which I think I’ve sold off a long time ago. Since college I’ve made it a point to not go to McDonald’s much other than an occasional cookie or if I’m hanging out with someone else who really wanted to go there.
Other than LEGO, and the Playmobil sets which I missed out on as a kid, there weren’t many other great toy lines as kid meal toys. (OK, Popoids. But who else remembers those?) The McD Hot Wheels cars were usually (but not always) a little cheaper, and I always wished they’d coordinate more with Kenner and Hasbro.
The absolute coolest fast food promotion I can remember was in either 1998 or 1999 (I think 1998) where Pizza Hut got a bunch of unreleased MicroMachines Star Wars mini sets. These were walnut-sized miniature heads which could pop open with a small environment inside, plus a micro figure. The chain sold the figures for about $1, plus had them as freebies with the $3 kid’s meal. The collector in me rules over pragmatism, so rather than buying one or two a day with lunch over a few weeks I just got 2 kids meals and bought the rest outright. And I’m glad I did, the bulk of those sets never saw US distribution and to this day I’m still missing only one of the heads from that Galoob line. (The Snowtrooper, if you have one for sale, was never sold in the USA at retail.) Also, I had a lot of KFC during the Phantom Menace's release.
Lately I frequently waffle over where to go to lunch and I’ll be honest with you, the decision usually boils down to a) what’s already in the house or b) what’s near a toy store. I would frequently hit up a place if they had something neat in those $3-$5 kid boxes, although it’s increasingly rare that the item is, in and of itself, interesting enough to warrant the trip. Jack in the Box had Justice League figures just a few years ago. Do you know what they have now? Nothing, they phased toys out a few years ago.
As I write this in the middle of the night a few days before it goes live, I’m looking at some new Fighter Pods figures and were it not for the fact these look cheap and are choking hazards, I’d love to see them in a cereal box or fast food meal. Heck, I’d love to see Mini-Cons, or Transformers that can act as guns for larger toys too. The last few LEGO promotions I’ve seen were either trading cards, or typical fast food figures of LEGO characters that were not, in fact, compatible. Disappointing.
I assume, like Saturday Morning Cartoons on network TV, the toy-with-food thing is probably a few years away form being a distant memory. It’s such a nakedly commercial enterprise that’s bad for us on so many levels, but I assume that anyone reading this has had at least a few of these cheap and generally disposable toys end up dictating where they had lunch a few times. I don’t get why we don’t see more of this targeted to adults, but like with exclusive Game of Thrones webisodes or more stuff aggressively pushing game console launches. (I think Wii U did this at Burger King. BK also did Xbox/Xbox 360 hybrid advergaming in-stores.) Heck, even McDonald’s did cheap VHS tapes at their store for movies like the Addam’s Family a long time ago. I assume there has to be something more to the food plus [something] business model that will make a comeback sooner than later, particularly to combat things like “health,” “human rights abuses,” and the like.