TAMPA — 11:59 a.m., McDonald's, Kennedy Boulevard:
"I'd like a Poor Man's Big Mac."
"It's something from the secret menu."
"Um, the only thing I can think of is a McDouble that you add lettuce and Mac sauce to."
"All right, I'll have that."
In the car, two minutes and as many bites later: It does taste like a Big Mac, only smaller and a little less cheesy and with no sesame seeds on the bun. The McDouble was $1, with 30 cents extra for the sauce. So, $1.30 versus $3.99 for the real deal.
This secret menu stuff is genius.
Since the 1970s, California-based fast-food chain In-N-Out has been offering items on the QT, most notably "animal-style" fries with cheese and grilled onions — and now chains from coast to coast are giving us what we secretly desire. Facilitated by social media, the DIY spirit is transforming fast-food and fast-casual restaurant fare. Consumer-driven innovations are swiftly turning into cult favorites, despite never appearing on an official menu.
In May, the Internet flooded with rumors of a Starbucks secret lineup that can only be ordered by those in the know. The Tuxedo Mocha, the Dirty Hippie, the Captain Crunch Frappuccino — Starbucks vehemently denies their existence.
Time for some research.
12:35 p.m., Starbucks, Westshore Plaza, the one near the McDonald's:
"I'd like a Grasshopper Frappuccino. It's from the secret menu I've been hearing about."
"It's not true."
So I stand at the counter and Google Grasshopper Frappuccino: "It consists of a mocha Frappuccino blended with java chips and peppermint syrup."
Done and done. Minty, chocolatey, refreshing and, best of all, super secret. Just me and the other people who use the Internet.
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In a world with so many food choices — McDonald's alone offers 57 burgers, sandwiches and wraps — why do we need to add more to menus?
"I think the appeal is having that relationship with the brand, where you know something that others don't," says Mark Baldwin, manager of public relations for Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. He says customization is at the core of this secret-menu fervor.
"I guess the phenomenon caught on within the last year or so. But we've always had this 'make it however you want it' (strategy) with our customers. You can add pepperjack cheese to a spicy chicken sandwich to make it even spicier. Or if you want your strips grilled, if it's humanly possible we're going to make that happen for you."
Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, says secret menu items help restaurants promote themselves and reach new customers in a competitive environment.
"Millennials are less loyal than older generational groups — they are willing to go wherever their friends choose, or wherever is cheapest," Tristano says. And they don't go out as often as they used to. In 2007, millennials (born 1980 to 2000) made 248 restaurants visits on average. Last year, that number fell to 99, according to Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for the market research firm NPD Group.
"That's the group that has continued to have the highest level of unemployment, and they just don't have as much discretionary income," Solochek says.
"Using social media, secret menus are an appeal builder and demand builder among potential clients," he says, adding that they lend "panache" to a restaurant without costing the company much.
Certainly it's cheaper for a company to tinker with new offerings without investing in signs and marketing materials. Items can be dropped or added on a whim. And often these secret items are combinations of existing menu items (the underground Land, Sea and Air Burger at McDonald's is a beef patty, a chicken patty, and a Filet-O-Fish patty all on a single bun; customers may need to provide construction guidance to McD's employees).
And sometimes secret menu items are a way to keep up with culinary trends without muddying the message. Panera Bread, with bread right there in the title, wanted to accommodate the growing number of gluten-avoiders. At the end of 2012, the company launched a hidden menu high in protein and with limited processed carbs — power breakfast bowls with egg white and roasted turkey or steak, or Mediterranean chicken bowls at lunch or dinner.
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Perhaps the most diabolical reason for offering secret menu items: If a dish doesn't truly exist, you don't need to post calorie counts, right? The McDonald's Monster Mac, a big Mac with eight patties, rings in at 1,390 calories, 92 grams of fat and 2,920 milligrams of sodium.
"If you think you can down eight patties, God bless you," says Solochek. "But you could never throw that kind of stuff up (on the printed menu). You'd have the press all over you."
According to Jennifer Bosson, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, secret menus may speak to our need to achieve optimal distinctiveness, striking a balance between fitting in versus standing out.
"Fast-food restaurants are probably mostly associated with fitting in. They're mainstream, not at all 'alternative' or creative or weird, they're all alike — every single McDonald's is the same inside. So the idea of tossing people an opportunity for some individuality amidst all that sameness is actually kind of brilliant, I think."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.