McDonald's menu identity crisis

Has McDonald's overloaded its menu? That seems to be the tune of the company these days. Here's a look back at the multitude of menu changes in the past few years.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
The McDonald's Golden Arches logo on a window at a McDonald's restaurant in Robinson Township, Pa. McDonald's execs worry they may have overcomplicated the fast food chain's menu.

McDonald’s Corp. executives used to speak with pride of its “robust new-product pipeline” that constantly produces menu innovations. Last week they changed the tune. Chief Operating Officer Tim Fenton told analysts that the chain had “overcomplicated” its menu in 2013 by adding “too many new products, too fast.” The pace was so robust that “We didn’t give the restaurants a chance to breathe,” Fenton said, and I give him credit for owning an uncomfortable truth. McDonald’s certainly isn’t broken but the menu needs reevaluation and the chain accepts that now.

Its menu problems didn’t start in 2013. Pushed by nutritionists’ call for more healthful foods, pulled by consumers’ insatiable appetite for new flavors and tripped up by an unexpected post-recession need for budget-priced items, the McDonald’s menu increased in size 75% between 2004 and 2014.  The current menu has 121 permanent items; barely a decade ago there were just 69 items for crew to assemble.

And that’s 121 permanent items on the item. The total doesn’t include Fish McBites, Steak & Egg Burrito, White Chocolate Mocha, Pralines & Crème McFlurry, Quarter Pounder BLT and all the other limited-time items of the past year or so.

As shown in the accompanying chart, the biggest increases have come in the burger/sandwich category and through the addition of McCafé beverages (lattes in 2009; smoothies and frappes joined in 2010),Snack Wraps (2006) and Premium McWraps (2013).

The Big N’ Tasty arrived with the New Tastes Menu in 2001, then departed in 2011.

That the burger category has nearly doubled in size is surprising considering that the Angus Third Pounders and Big N’ Tasty burgers that were on the 2004 menu have since been eliminated. What has happened is a proliferation of “flanker” products. The core Double Cheeseburger was joined in 2008 by a McDouble burger (a Double Cheeseburger with just one piece of cheese) followed by the 2012 arrival of the Daily Double (with lettuce and tomato) and this year’s Bacon McDouble (one of the five new burgers that came in the Dollar Menu & More, adding complexity).

The decision to offer chicken sandwiches and salads in both “crispy” and “grilled” chicken varieties—pleasing calorie counters—further bloated the menu. In 2004, chicken choices were limited to just four: McChicken, Chicken McGrill, Crispy Chicken and Hot ‘n Spicy Chicken sandwiches. The current menu has four varieties of the McChicken alone. There are also six different Premium chicken sandwiches (in crispy or grilled, of course).

The Daily Double is a “flanker” to the Double Cheeseburger and McDouble.

As if that all weren’t complicated enough, the chain rolled out the “After Midnight Menu” that made selected dinner and breakfast items available from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m.

McDonald’s always has moved items on and off the menu. Recall that in 2001, having installed the new “Made For You” cooking system, McDonalds introduced the New Tastes Menu. This was a group of 40 new products—that’s right, 40—from which local markets would pick up to four at a time, cycling these new items to and from their menu boards. “We’re launching New Tastes Menu to give customers even more taste, variety and value at McDonald’s,” said then-USA President Alan Feldman, sounding very much like the current company line.

The New Tastes Menu items included the Big N’ Tasty, Crispy Chicken McClub, BBQ Bacon Chicken McGrill, Sausage Breakfast Burrito and McRib Jr.

What’s important about the New Tastes Menu is that most items didn’t stick around. The came; they went. And that’s what has overextended McDonald’s menu over the past two years: too many new menu items didn’t know when it was time to leave. Premium McWraps; Steak, Egg & Cheese McMuffins and Biscuits; Egg White Delight McMuffin, Mighty Wings and the Grilled Onion Cheddar burger are still on the menu. At least the CBO (Cheddar Bacon Onion) and Chicken McBites didn’t move in permanently.

Testing build-your-own Quarter Pounders as it is doing in two markets won’t simply overcomplicated operations. McDonald’s believes that new High-Density Kitchen equipment will allow crews to better handle the current menu and—say it isn’t so—future additions. It might, but I’d say McDonald’s needs to slow itself down, show the door to some of its extended menu family (four McChickens? McGriddles?), listen less to its critics and get back to the business of being the world’s biggest burger chain.

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