Stop calling them secret menus

There’s no such thing as a secret menu

Secret restaurant menus are secret in the same way Victoria’s Secret is a secret. But they definitely don’t accentuate your figure.

You’ve probably heard about the secret menu of West Coast burger chain In-N-Out, even if you don’t live in one of the five states where you can get their “animal style” fries. You know why? Because they publish their secret menu on their own website, as does Panera Bread. And then everybody talks about it because it’s “secret.”

Now they’re in the news again. Thrillist is wetting itself over Taco Bell’s secret sriracha items. And both Lifehacker and The Guardian have written this month about HackTheMenu, the self-described “ultimate collection of secret menus.”

As secret-menu-documenting efforts go, it’s clean, organized, and at least estimates the price. (Ingredient costs and pricing strategy can vary between areas and franchisees.) That’s a notch above niche blogs like Hidden Menu or Starbucks Secret Menu.

But there are a lot of dumb things about secret menus…

On McDonalds' secret menu: McGangBang

1. Most of the items are just popular-enough custom orders

The funny thing about secret menus — aside from not being secret or menus — is that fast food has always catered to the whims of its customers.

Hence the 40-year-old Burger King slogan, “Have it your way.” Or McDonald’s “What you want is what you get.” Or the much older and broader, “The customer is always right.

Take the “secret menu” items for Subway: One of the three things listed is a pizza sub, a seasonal menu item you can actually get year-round. But the other two are just preparation methods.

The “old cut” is just how Subway employees were trained to cut the bread more than a decade ago, from the top rather than the side. And the “wing effect” leaves the meat and cheese hanging out of the bread in an Instagram-friendly fashion.

Secrets! Or just weird things you never thought to ask for, with names like Dr Pepper Orgasm, Liquid Cocaine, and McGangbang.


Secret menus draw on the same ingredients

2. Every chain store has the same ingredients

If you travel abroad, you can get a shrimp burger or stir-fry McNoodles at McDonald’s. If you could get those in the United States, that would be an interesting secret.

But in the U.S., most of the menu is based on two different sizes of beef: the smaller size used in everything from 69-cent cheeseburgers to Big Macs, and the Quarter Pounder size. Different configurations of bread, sauce and cheese make it seem like more than a dozen different items. That’s efficient and good marketing — the illusion of lots of choices, all at different price points.

But go to any restaurant that isn’t a burger joint, and you’ll see far fewer burger options. Pick one, and you’ll be asked what you want on it — giving you the same or greater range of options as McDonald’s, but probably with better quality and a higher price.

Secret menu implies something hidden, something you don’t already see available. And restaurants want you to see everything so you’ll be the most likely to buy something. They don’t want secrets, just “secrets.”

Which is how you end up with things like the Mustard Whopper. The secret? “It is the classic Whopper, but the mayonaisse [sic] is replaced with a flavor punch of mustard. It is a simple twist, but it really changes the whole Whopper.”

Probably a joke, but it’s funny because it’s true.

Arby's secret menu: Meat Mountain

3. There are sometimes cash register buttons for them

Arby’s recently debuted a “secret” menu item called the Meat Mountain — a $10 mess of all eight kinds of meat in the store, meant to highlight that Arby’s has more than roast beef.

There’s some debate about whether it was a secret that naturally grew out of customer requests that gained a cult following, as many “secret menu” items do, or whether Arby’s just made it up for marketing. What we do know is that “Arby’s distributed the recipe and added it to computer registers before some of its employees had ever gotten an order for it.”

So there’s may be a button for your hip little secret item. Right next to buttons for official items. Does that lessen the charm?

Even when a secret item isn’t explicitly listed on the cash register screen, ingredients have specific prices. If you’ve ever asked for extra anything, you probably saw it as a line item on the receipt. That you can pay more to get something the way you want it is no secret.

McDonald's secret menu prices

4. They can cost more than they should

If it’s not on the official menu, the company probably hasn’t convened a room full of important strategy people to think about how the item can make money. It probably hasn’t trained its army of low-wage workers in how to price out your weird little craving.

That means the employees might not have any idea what you’re talking about. Then you’re the guy holding up the line for something stupid and unusual and they’re feeling pressured to get you out of the way. They have to guess at what to press to tally up your order, whether they can take a regular menu item and sub something out, whether it’s better to individually price out ingredients, whether you can actually make a combo with that. Once they price it, somebody has to figure out how to make it.

Depending on your attitude, and their experience and generosity, you may get a deal or you may pay more for the same thing from one visit to the next. And the price isn’t listed anywhere, so it’s hard for you to argue or even know what it should be. Your $10 Meat Mountain could end up costing $29, with some assembly required.

Cheese fries are not on the Five Guys secret menu

5. Some of them are just fake

So you find a cool secret menu item online and you’re ready to boldly request it. You want the Five Guys cheese fries, wink wink. Judging by the actual comments for that particular listing, here’s what happens…

  • You get a funny look, like you’re stupid. They tell you that doesn’t exist.
  • You insist that it’s online, and people said it’s a thing, and you want it. Can you ask someone else or grab the manager?
  • The manager tells you that your photo and listing are fake, since “A. they are served in a cup in a brown bag…not on a tray. B. There is no oven or microwave at any Five Guys location, so there is no way to melt the cheese!”
  • Desperate, you point out that they put cheese on burgers and it melts. Can you get a cheeseburger, and they scrape the melty cheese off and put it on the fries?
  • They tell you that corporate doesn’t allow that and they could get in trouble for it.
  • You leave disappointed.
  • You go back and post a comment on the secret menu site, something like “fake garbage website.”
On In-n-Out's secret menu: 100x100

6. A lot of them are just plain gross

You know why they don’t list the Monster Mac on the regular McDonald’s menu? You know why that’s not a No. 4 combo?

Because it looks disgusting and has an estimated 1,370 calories. (Take the difference between a cheeseburger and double cheeseburger, multiply by 6, add to Big Mac.)

For comparison, a regular Big Mac has 530, and a double Quarter Pounder has 740.

And as if you could even fit that in your mouth or eat it like a normal human being.

Then there’s the guys who got In-N-Out’s 100×100. There are photos. They split the 19490 calories between eight people.

Anything like that on a secret menu should stay a secret.

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