Loyal restaurant customers cling to their favorite meals while hipsters are keen on kale, brussels sprouts and cauliflower rice. So it’s good to know when a certain meal disappears in favor of something trendier it doesn’t mean it’s gone for good. It might have just dropped onto the restaurant’s “secret menu.”
Secret menus may sound like something you’d find at a chic downtown bistro. But the unpublished menu trend is more often found in fast food chains. Regular customers are given the chance to order meals they haven’t tired of, or the option of trying something new.
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Heading into Starbucks? You won’t find these on the menu, but order an Apple Pie Frappuccino or splurge with a Cotton Candy Frappuccino. After your blood sugar levels normalize, head to Chipotle and ask for a Quesorito, essentially a burrito wrapped in a quesadilla. Too much? There’s also the burritodilla, with half the filling of a usual burrito but an overload on cheese.
Go for a brisk walk to digest that, then swing into your local Jamba Juice for a tasty Butterfinger Smoothie or a healthier “Hello Jesus.” Really. Even though it’s not on the menu, that’s the name of the concoction, a combination of peach juice, soy milk, orange and lime sherbet and a big scoop of strawberries.
Secret menus started with the popular Southern California-based In ‘n Out Burger, where its simple burger and fries menu is supplemented by an array of secret items. That included a “3×3” (three patties, three slices of cheese burger) and having your burger “animal style,” where the condiments are cooked into the patty. In fact, unlike some of the aforementioned restaurants, In ‘n Out now has its “not-so-secret menu” listed on its Web site if you know where to look.
Secret menus might just help a fast food chain survive the whims of corporate food management, too.
There’s a certain cachet that comes with the secret menu option, being part of an exclusive club that one rarely feels in the drive-through lane. It’s something restaurants bank on to create both loyal customers and a corporate mythos. In Los Angeles, for example, In ‘n Out Burger fans are extraordinarily loyal, going out of their way for their “3×3 animal style with fries” in lieu of healthier food options.
And that’s another factor in secret menus: restaurants aren’t required to share the nutritional content for food not on display. Consumers might run away in terror at a sight of a 1,500 calorie burger meal. But if that same burger’s nutritional content isn’t advertised those health risks are easier to ignore.
Secret menus might just help a fast food chain survive the whims of corporate food management, too. McDonald’s has a secret menu now — try ordering a Chicken McGriddle or a McKinley Mac — and it’s possible that’s helped the company turn around a two-year sales slide in the most recent fiscal quarter even with the disastrous launch of its all-day breakfast plan.
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Heck, Starbucks makes more than 10 percent of its overall sales off frappuccinos, and those started out as a secret (oh, OK, experimental, locally invented) menu item almost 20 years ago. Now the company estimates there are more than 36,000 different variations on the Frappuccino that can be made at a typical store. It’s no wonder that popular off-menu combinations earn their own fanciful names.
Select higher end restaurants also have secret menu items, too, though sometimes it’s just a favorite that’s fallen off the official menu but can still be whipped together by a cooperative chef as needed.
Whether you gravitate towards fast food restaurants or fancier fare, ask loyal patrons what you’re not seeing displayed. They might just have a secret menu all their own.