Here's a secret: There are items not on the menu you can order from your favorite restaurants -- pass it on.
They don't exist. They're secret. Yet, walk into a growing number of fast food restaurants and you'll be able to order something that isn't on the menu. They're called "secret menus" and they seem to be the latest in advertising and marketing strategies in the highly competitive fast food world.
Apparently, it's a little like guerrilla marketing for a product or movie, where you get the word out through all kinds of odd videos, social media memes, publicity stunts, etc. In the fast food world, word-of-mouth marketing is being accelerated via social media and they're taking advantage of it. Especially at places like Panera Bread, where, according to Bruce Horovitz at USA Today (March 10), they've spread the word that things can be had that aren't on the menu. The trick: You have to ask for it.
And Panera isn't the only fast food restaurant chain that allows customers to order products not on the menu. McDonald's, Taco Bell, and In-N-Out are also said to be involved in the "secret" struggle for customers, although only McDonald's flat-out denies that there's a "secret menu" or that they promote any such products. (But you'd expect that kind of denial in a "secret" war, right?)
You see, it's all about creating a buzz around a product. At Panera Bread, they've embraced the idea openly. The chain, known mostly for their bread (of course), have begun selling Power Bowls, items that contain various ingredients and no bread. They're not on any store menu. But if a customer asks for one, they serve one up. And Panera isn't up "leaking" their own secrets, either. In fact, their secret menu is circulated via social media.
Ron Shaich, founder of Panera: "Secret menus allow us to speak to one audience without the investment and infrastructure of putting an item on the menu."
Besides, he adds, "they're very cool."
Yes, secrecy has a coolness factor. It sets up an bond with those who share it. It seems that Panera and others are simply taking advantage of human nature. Who doesn't want to be part of the in-crowd, one of the few with certain information? And then there is the dissemination factor: How many people keep a secret well? How many cannot wait to tell someone that they have one-of-a-kind information?
Restaurant PR guru Derek Farley says it works to sell to a "select few." However, he adds, "You may build buzz about your brand," he says, "but I'd rather sell something that appeals to a lot than a few."
Which is why restaurants like McDonald's, once known for having a "secret sauce" for their hamburgers, might not want to be so open about a "secret" menu. It could be all about volume sales. The largest fast food chain on the planet maintains that there is no secret menu or products to be had at their stores. Not true, says social media, which insists there is the "Mc10:35," a sandwich named for the time of the shift change between breakfast and lunch, and where the McMuffin bread is substituted for a hamburger bun on a McDouble sandwich. A spokesperson for McDonald's said that customers have come up with their own items and franchises are free to sell items as they please.
In-N-Out has a not-so-secret secret menu. Although certain products aren't listed on the store menus, they are listed the restaurant's website. In-N-Out sells something called a "Protein Burger." It is two cheeseburger patties wrapped in lettuce -- no bun. The chain's vice president of planning and development, Carl Van Fleet, said the restaurant did not "set out to create or pioneer a secret menu. Some of the names for these variations just stuck."
With the advent of the Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell, it would appear that the restaurant chain is allowing customers to substitute the cool ranch or nachos taco shells for the regular taco shell inside their Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
It would appear that Burger King started something long ago when they answered the cry for having hamburgers made to order with a shot across McDonald's processed bow in an ad campaign that invited customers to "Have it your way." Special orders didn't upset them. The chain even had a catchy song about not be upset. After awhile, special orders and alterations on menu items became standard industry practice. (Thank you, Burger King...)
So now it appears that having it your way also involves being involved in a secret menus war, a marketing technique enhanced by the ubiquitousness of social media and better understanding of crowd and consumer psychologies.
There's nothing like a "secret" everybody shares -- which also says something about modern social psychology...
(photo credit: Renjishino, Creative Commons)
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