Secret menus: Fast food 'hacks' for in-the-know customers
Competition is driving many fast-food restaurants to fill special orders. As a result, hundreds of "secret menu" items circulate on social media to be snapped up by savvy eaters.
Fast-food chain Arby's recently made headlines for something called the Meat Mountain. The "sandwich" consists of six different types of meat, two types of cheese and chicken tenders, all topped off with three strips of bacon.
This mega meal was not a limited time offer or special promotion, but instead a secret menu item that only in-the-know customers could request.
Experts tell the BBC the Meat Mountain is just one part of a growing secret-menu trend involving fast-food chains and restaurants around the world.
While they are growing in popularity, off-menu items are not new. Kiley Libuit and his brothers grew up competing to make the most creative combination of sodas from local fast food restaurants.
Soon, the California resident "realised you can order pretty much whatever you want and as long as it's reasonable, they'll make it for you," he says.
The Libuits began asking restaurant employees which were the most popular new combinations and started HackTheMenu.com to keep track.
Today, the site contains dozens of popular secret menu items at large chains including McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and KFC.
Savvy Taco Bell customers can ask for the off-menu Superman Burrito, a cheesy double beef burrito stuffed with extra potatoes, sour cream, guacamole and tortilla strips.
If that's too big of a challenge, they can order the significantly smaller Cheesarito, a soft tortilla filled with cheese, scallions and taco sauce.
According to Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group, fast-food chains like Taco Bell fulfil special requests because of direct competition from the growing sector of fast-casual restaurants.
Such restaurants - which typically have counter service, higher quality ingredients and made-to-order approaches - have been taking a big bite out of both fast-food and sit-down restaurants' business, Riggs says.
"Fast food is trying every way that they can to compete with fast casual," she adds. "If they have the things available, if it's not during a really busy time, they're going to accommodate that [request] because they want that visit and they want that customer to come back."
But that hasn't stopped sit-down restaurants as well as fast-casual chains like Panera and Chipotle from getting in on the secret menu action.
Chipotle is happy to serve queues the Quesarito, in which a cheese quesadilla acts as the shell of their traditional menu item burrito.
It's a very popular item, according to HackTheMenu, but how do such under-the-radar requests catch on?
Libuit says postings on Facebook and other social media sites are largely responsible for a serious spike in secret menu offerings, particularly in the last six months.
But, he adds, not every restaurant or its employees will know about each secret menu item.
"It's best to have the recipe pulled up on your phone or something when you're ordering so if they don't know, you can tell them how it's made," Libuit explains.
Popular secret menu items:
- Burger King: The Rodeo Burger (a cheeseburger topped with onion rings and BBQ sauce), Frings (a half order of French fries and a half order of onion rings)
- McDonald's: The Land, Sea and Air Burger (a Big Mac stuffed with Filet-O-Fish and McChicken sandwich patties), a McCrepe (a hotcake stuffed with yogurt parfait, granola and syrup), and the Chicken McGriddle (a fried chicken patty inside a syrup-flavoured McGriddle bun)
- Starbucks: Cake Batter Frappuccino (a standard Vanilla Frappuccino with an extra pump of vanilla bean and almond flavouring), Liquid Cocaine (four shots of Espresso and four pumps of white chocolate syrup) and Nutella drink (a Caffe Misto with an extra pump of chocolate syrup, hazelnut syrup and caramel drizzle)
It's also helpful to remember that prices differ depending on where, and what, you're ordering.
"Menu prices fluctuate from store to store," he says, advising customers to ask about cost before making a special request.
What also seesaws is corporate enthusiasm for a given secret menu item.
Many currently popular off-menu items are simply former limited-time offers that were not successful enough to land on the regular menu but still gained a cult following, says Riggs.
If companies still have the ingredients, fulfilling customers' requests for a past favourite is an easy way to build brand loyalty.
But some items can be more contentious than others. One secret sandwich combo at McDonald's - consisting of a chicken sandwich inside a double cheeseburger - has gained a rather lewd nickname among customers.
Libuit says several McDonalds employees told him they were instructed to "act like they don't know what it is" when customers ask for it to keep the name from catching on.
When queried, a company spokeswoman said "there is no secret menu at McDonald's, but we know our customers are really creative and they tell us all the time that they enjoy customising our menu".
Such menu customising is not only limited to the US, says Libuit, who sees many requests come from abroad, particularly Europe.
"[We've found] the more westernised countries have similar regular menus so they will be able to make these secret menu items," he says, noting many such items are available in the United Kingdom specifically. "But someplace like a McDonald's in China might have different menus."
For Riggs, secret menus are not just a food industry gimmick, but a savvy business practice.
As consumers, she says "we are looking for more options, more choices, more variety, something unique, something special," she says.
For competitive businesses, secret menus are just another ingredient for success.