Fast food menus are finally growing again after getting down to the basics in 2020

Popeyes nuggets
is adding nuggets. Popeyes
  • Many fast-food chains are finally growing their menus again with new food items.
  • In 2020, most chains cut down menus to just best-selling items to make restaurants more efficient.
  • One expert says brands are trying to keep customers interested with the draw of new items.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Fast food menus contracted across the industry in 2020 and into 2021, but they’re finally growing again, and it’s a sign that the restaurant industry is getting back to normal.

Most of the major chains have introduced new menu items in the past few months. McDonald’s just launched a glazed doughnut for a limited time, Popeyes launched nuggets, Subway overhauled nearly its entire menu and Taco Bell brought back the crispy chicken sandwich taco.

“We’re back in a phase where menus are starting to grow,” Mark Kalinowski, Kalinowski Equity Research CEO told Insider. Businesses are reopening and getting back to normal, so customers can expect more growth in the near future, though menus might not be as extensive as they were right before COVID-19 hit.

Fast food menus abruptly shrank across the board in 2020 as chains tried to keep service going through a pandemic. Taco Bell cut more than a dozen items in 2020, including fan favorites like the seven-layer burrito, potatoes and Mexican pizza. Despite outcry from fans last year, the cuts paid off – in the third quarter of 2020, Taco Bell served 30 million more customers than in all of 2019, and each order was completed 17 seconds faster.

McDonald’s made a similar move in 2020, rolling out a limited menu that only included best-selling items like Big Macs, fries, and McMuffins. It also stopped serving breakfast all day, which still hasn’t returned nationwide. McDonald’s senior vice president of operations Bill Garrett told Insider that the changes were
“to simplify operations in our kitchens and for our crew, and ensure the best possible experience for our customer.”

“Last year was such a gigantic uncertainty, [smaller menus] made things more simple,” Kalinowski said. Simplifying menus helped limit wait times for customers, which became more important than ever as drive-thrus were suddenly the primary, and sometimes only, way customers could visit their favorite chains.

Now, over a year into the pandemic, fast food executives are still touting the importance of drive-thrus to the health of their businesses, and with that the need to keep lines short and wait times down. But these chains also need to keep customers coming back, and new menu items are a big appeal, Kalinowski said.

McDonald’s already figured out a way to have the excitement of a new item launch without adding much complexity for staff with its Famous Orders, which use a celebrity endorsement to create excitement around combinations of already-existing menu items.

The Travis Scott meal fall of 2020 was so popular that some locations ran out of Quarter Pounder ingredients. It was also enriching for Scott personally, as he netted at least $US20 ($AU27) million from the deal, according to Forbes. The spring BTS meal was also popular, driving traffic to restaurants giving McDonald’s its busiest week of the year to date. Both the Travis Scott and J Balvin meals broke records in the US, CEO Chris Kempczinski said in an earnings call.

Now, with profits up and customers returning, chains are betting that they’re ready to handle new menu items, even with staffing shortages.

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