How McDonald's made history in Costa Rica

Costa Rica became just the third country with a McDonald’s location.

It seems that no matter where in the world you travel, you’re never far from a McDonald’s. This is true in Costa Rica, where the fast-food chain operates dozens of restaurants, cafés, and dessert stands.

The Golden Arches™ are a comfort, a nuisance, or an example of cultural imperialism, depending on your point of view. (We won’t get into that debate here.) What few people know, though, is that tiny Costa Rica represented a major milestone for McDonald’s.

In 1970, Costa Rica became just the third country — after only the U.S. and Canada — with a McDonald’s location.

That year, McDonald’s opened its first Costa Rica location, across from the Central Bank in downtown San José. As the company itself says, on that day, the fast-food chain began “conquering” customers in Central America.

Two years later, McDonald’s added a second restaurant, in La Sabana. It was Costa Rica’s first with a children's play area, El Guardian reports, and a good strategy: Today, countless Tico children have celebrated a “Happy Cumpleaños” birthday party with Ronald McDonald.

What could you get at those early McDonald’s? Not much. The only items on the Costa Rican menus were the Big Mac, the basic hamburger/cheeseburger, fries and drinks. McDonald’s has since incorporated Costa Rica-centric items, like Gallo Pinto and “La Tica” — a burger with Salsa Lizano.

And conquer they did. By the early 2000s, nearly 20% of Costa Ricans reported having visited a McDonald’s within the last 30 days. Today, McDonald’s says it serves 28 million people in Costa Rica each year. That’s 5.5 visits for every Costa Rican.

The chain’s success in Costa Rica bolstered a period of rapid global expansion. McDonald’s now boasts 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, with Costa Rica representing an early stepping stone on the path to global domination.


Fun fact: The “Happy Meal” has Latin American origins! In mid-1970s Guatemala, a woman named Yolanda Fernández de Cofiño realized a kids’ menu with smaller portions would help parents feed their children at McDonald’s restaurants. While the concept seems obvious now, it reached the chain’s corporate offices. Corporate designed the iconic box and put the Happy Meal to market in 1977.

Yolanda Fernández is a well-known in Latin America as the “Mother of the Happy Meal.” She also went on to become regional president of McDonald’s.


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