mcdonalds metro zoo

Scarborough once had the world's largest McDonalds

Did you know that between 1974 and 1990, the largest McDonalds restaurant in the entire world was located in Scarborough? It was on the grounds of the Metro Zoo, more specifically in the African zone, and only lost its coveted title when an even larger McDonalds was opened at Pushkin Square in Russia by McDonalds of Canada, who had learned a lot from their adventures at the zoo.

If you visited the Metro Toronto Zoo in the 70s, 80s or 90 chances are you ate there, and might have some strange memories of unique food items they served. There were in fact two restaurants - one in the North American zone, one in the African zone - and three snack bars, selling an eclectic blend of the classic McDonalds menu, and a modified Zoo menu.

In 1974, McDonalds of Canada had beat out 84 other bids for exclusivity to sell food on the Zoo's property, however there were many conditions which forced McDonalds to significantly up their game. Up until this point, McDonalds (especially in the U.S) ran a fairly cookie cutter franchise - burgers, fries and milkshakes were the mainstay of the brand.

mcdonalds metro zoo

Part of the contract with the zoo involved the operation of snack bars, something which McDonalds had never done. It was a bold new challenge for the company, as the snack bars were outside and therefore had no kitchens. What could they possibly serve to the hungry zoo visitors?

mcdonalds metro zoomcdonalds metro zoo

The McDonalds snack bar menus have attained somewhat of a cult status among those lucky enough to have visited the zoo during those decades. Popcorn, hot dogs, sandwiches (Turkey, Ham & Cheese, Tuna Salad, Chopped Egg, Peanut Butter & Jelly!), and hard scooped ice-cream (10 flavors) were all exclusive to the zoo.

The hotdogs in particular were delicious as McDonalds maintained their commitment to using only 100% beef (like their hamburgers). Soft ice cream, now ubiquitous at all McDonalds, actually had its debut in the African and North American restaurants.

mcdonalds metro zoo

Due to the high volume of customers, both the African and North American zone restaurants required major firepower in the kitchens to keep up with the flow of guests. The African zone McDonalds had at the time a totally unheard of 24 cash registers. The zoo was a seasonal business, something else which was completely new to the McDonalds business model.

In addition to the new menu items, McDonalds also had to modify some of their standard business practices. As the safety of the animals was paramount, no straws were allowed on the premises, nor plastic lids (no ketchup packets either). This vastly increased the cost of doing business, while the price of the food had to be the same as it was in regular locations.

mcdonalds metro zoo

Probably the most glaring change for McDonalds was the low-key branding - you might remember there were no golden arches on display. The workers wore the standard uniform, but there were no McDonaldland characters, or playgrounds, or the usual signage you associate with the brand.

mcdonalds metro zoo

McDonalds had a successful 30 year run at the Metro Zoo, but their contract was not renewed and the restaurants and snack bars are now operated by a mixture of companies including Smokes Poutinerie, Pizza Pizza, Beaver Tails, and most recently Tim Hortons.

mcdonalds metro zoo

McDonalds of Canada carried their learnings from operating at the zoo into their biggest endeavour at the time, the opening of a massive restaurant in Pushkin Square, Russia in 1990. All of this was thanks to the vision of George Cohon, the founder of McDonalds Canada.

In addition to accommodating the challenges of the zoo, taking it into Russia, and evolving the McDonalds brand into something much more robust, Cohon was also responsible for helping to save the Toronto Santa Claus Parade in 1982.

mcdonalds metro zoo

Like the Monorail, McDonalds played a huge part in many people's happy memories of visiting the Metro Zoo between the 1970s and 1990s, as anyone who remembers those tasty McDonalds hot dogs will attest.

Special thanks to Sam Joseph .

Ed Conroy's Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing stories and discoveries at www.retrontario.com.


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