The Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Fast Food Mascots

Burger King Mascot

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Burger King Mascot
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Behind the Mascot

Some mascots have remarkable staying power; Ronald McDonald is far older than most of his customers today. Other mascots come and go too quickly to remember. And even the mascots who do stick around often have to change with the times. Either way, there's often more to a mascot than meets the eye. Here's the story behind 11 popular American fast food mascots. What's your favorite mascot story? Let us know in the comments.

Related: Fast Food Restaurants Then and Now

McDonald's restaurant
Joel Carillet/istockphoto

Ronald McDonald (McDonald's)

Ronald McDonald first appeared in 1963, though fans of today's friendly cartoon clown probably wouldn't recognize the early version, based on a then-popular TV character called Bozo the Clown. When Bozo was canceled, McDonald's hired the actor who played him to create another clown character whose costume was made of things then found in McDonald's restaurants (such as a paper drinking cup instead of a red clown nose). That's how "Today" show weather reporter Willard Scott became the first-ever Ronald McDonald.

Related: Surprising Things You Didn't Know About McDonald's

McDonaldland Poster

McDonaldland and Its Residents (McDonald's)

Ronald McDonald got a new place to live in 1971: McDonaldland, a colorful fantasyland populated by such characters as Grimace, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, and Officer Big Mac. McDonaldland and its characters were strongly reminiscent of the then-popular children's puppet show "H.R. Pufnstuf," to the point where Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft sued McDonald's successfully for copyright infringement. Though McDonaldland stopped appearing in McDonald's ad campaigns, characters such as Grimace and the Hamburglar remained in use through the 21st century.

Related: Spectacular Fast Food Restaurant Designs Around the World

Wendy's Restaurant

Wendy (Wendy's)

The freckle-faced red-haired little girl whose picture graces every Wendy's restaurant is based on a real person: Wendy Thomas, daughter of company founder Dave Thomas. (Actually, it's every Wendy's but one — a location in Hartsville, South Carolina, jokingly known as "Goth Wendy" or "Emo Wendy" because Wendy's hair is black rather than red. This is apparently because the town has issues over the use of red in signs, and even the McDonald's across the street has a green sign.

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Spongmonkeys (Quiznos)

Spongmonkeys (Quiznos)

In the age of the internet, probably every ad writer hopes their commercial will go viral. The Quiznos Spongmonkeys did it backward, a viral sensation before starting their careers as ad mascots for a few months in 2004. The odd-looking, oddly named rodentlike creatures debuted in an online video called "We Like the Moon" a year earlier singing "We like the moon 'cause it is close to us" in loud, off-key voices. They became one of the earliest memes, catching the attention of Quiznos' marketers. Their first commercial followed fast, but the campaign ended only a few months later — partly because, while the ads were effective at generating attention, they were extremely unpopular with most Quiznos franchise owners.

Related: The Craziest Marketing Stunts of All Time

Famous Chick-fil-A Cows

The Cows (Chick-fil-A)

Chick-fil-A's mascots have long been a pair of black-and-white Holstein cows with strong self-preservation instincts and poor spelling skills, when they began urging people to "Eat mor chikin" in lieu of beef. The cows made their first appearance in 1995 painting a billboard in Atlanta, but have since moved throughout the country and are featured on plush toys and calendars.

Colonel Sanders' image on bucket-shaped sign above KFC franchise

Colonel Sanders (KFC)

The Colonel isn't just the KFC company mascot, but also its real-life founder — "Colonel" Harland David Sanders opened the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1930. He sold the company in 1964, strongly disapproving of various changes later made to his recipes. In the 1970s, one KFC restaurant tried to sue Sanders for libel (the case was eventually tossed out), after the Colonel told a newspaper reporter that KFC's gravy was "pure wallpaper paste," and "that new 'crispy' recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken." The real Col. Sanders died in 1980. In the late 1990s, an animated cartoon version appeared in KFC ads; a more stylized rendition adorns KFC restaurants today.

Burger King Mascot
Wikimedia Commons

The King (Burger King)

Of course a fast food restaurant with "king" in its name would choose a royal mascot. The current representative — a live-action man wearing kingly garb and an immobile plastic mask — is at least the fourth version. In the 1950s and '60s, there was a chubby-cheeked cartoon king sitting on a hamburger throne, and in the '70s, a smaller animated version voiced by Allen Swift, best known for voiceover work in "Underdog" and "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. In the '80s, there was a "Marvelous Magical Burger King," but by the end of the decade, the company phased out king-based mascots. The plastic-masked king (whose mask is based on a 1970s-era version found on eBay by an ad-agency employee) arrived in 2003.

Churchie the Chicken
Church's Chicken

Churchie the Chicken (Church's Chicken)

Church's Chicken restaurants have been around since the 1950s, but not until the 1980s did Churchie the Chicken become their mascot. That anthropomorphic chicken was actually the company's second attempt at a mascot named Churchie. The original 1950s Churchie was a smiling human chef with a round face and belly.

The Noid (Domino's Pizza)

The Noid (Domino's Pizza)

You could say the Noid was not Domino's mascot, but its anti-mascot — the point of choosing Domino's was to "avoid The Noid," as ads said. The cartoonish Claymation villain debuted in 1986, resorting to various comical schemes to prevent Domino's from delivering its pizza in 30 minutes or less. Unfortunately, The Noid came to a sadder end than most cartoon mascots: In 1989, Kenneth Lamar Noid, 22, went to a Domino's in Georgia, and held two hostages at gunpoint for nearly five hours because he was convinced the company's commercials were directed at him. Noid was arrested and charged with crimes including kidnapping, but found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent some time in a mental health facility, and in 1995 died in his Florida apartment. Domino's immediately ended the Noid campaign.

Bob's Big Boy
Wikimedia Commons

Big Boy and Dolly (Shoney's/Bob's Big Boy)

The brown-haired Big Boy in his red-and-white checkered overalls has been the mascot for Shoney's Big Boy restaurants since the 1930s — named after a regular diner at the founder Bob Wian's original burger stand: "a chubby 6-year-old boy named Richard Woodruff," according to the company, whose "devotion inspired Bob to name the new burger Big Boy after his nickname for Richard." In the summer of 2020, to promote a new menu item, the company said it would replace Big Boy with a new mascot called Dolly, a blonde-haired girl who had been one of Big Boy's comic-book friends since the 1950s. Dolly briefly replaced Big Boy as the mascot on the Bob's company website, but Big Boy returned once the menu promotion ended.

Sambo's Old Logo

Boy and Tiger (Sambo's)

Two Californians named Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett started a restaurant named "Sambo's" in 1957, supposedly from combining their names "Sam" and "Bo" — but most people figured they got the name from "The Story of Little Black Sambo," a 19th-century children's tale about a dark-skinned little boy who had a scary encounter with tigers, until the tigers ran so fast they melted into a giant pile of butter that Sambo's mother used to make pancakes. (The original name was "Sambo's Pancake House," and its mascot was a little black boy eating pancakes while a tiger watched, all with a tagline "The finest pancakes west of the Congo.") By 1960 that mascot was a light-skinned boy in a jeweled turban with a smiling tiger friend, with no mention of the Congo. That didn't quell complaints of a racist name, yet by the 1970s there were more than 1,000 Sambo's restaurants across the U.S. and a "Tiger Tamers" loyalty club for children. The chain faced increasing controversy over its name, a fairly common racist slur; by the early 1980s, it filed for bankruptcy protection, laying off thousands of workers. By 2020 only one Sambo's store remained: a California location owned by Battistone's grandson. When the nation erupted in protest after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, the grandson changed the name to Chad's.