Merchant Innovation

Fast Food’s Dollar Menu Arms Race

It’s more than a decade since the days of “Super Size Me” and flavor-of-the-month weight loss trends, and while brands like Whole Foods and Pure Barre might now be here to stay, evidence is mounting that the fast food industry isn’t going to take the last several years of losses lying down. In fact, more than a few companies are rolling out a secret weapon they think can win back customers lost to salads, wraps and other less stigmatized food groups than fries and burgers.

USA Today has the story of how McDonald’s ditched a revival of its Dollar Menu in favor of the “McPick 2″ menu — a selection of burgers, chicken sandwiches and sides that diners can select two items from to pair for a $2 meal. The menu went live for the first time on Monday (Jan. 4), and executives like Debora Wahl, chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, will be keeping a close eye on how customers react to the offerings — though there’s no lack of confidence coming from the Golden Arches’ HQ.

“We think it will be able to serve this customer group that hasn’t felt like they’ve gotten everything they wanted in that choice and flexibility they are looking for,” Wahl told USA Today.

If two items aren’t quite enough choice and flexibility for McDonald’s customers, though, the chain’s biggest rival struck a blow when Burger King released its own updated discount menu. Instead of a previous “2 for $5” menu now made obsolete by McDonald’s, Burger King has begun running a “5 for $4” deal that offers diners a complete meal for double McDonald’s McPick 2 total.

“When we continually deliver upon our business strategy of bringing people into our restaurants with great tasting food at an accessible price point, we win with our guests and our franchisee partners,” Alex Macedo, president of Burger King’s North American brand, said in a statement. “Our new 5 for $4 deal continues to build upon that winning strategy.”

If packaging menu items together for lower prices is a winning strategy in traditional fast food, businesses on the edge of the industry are also borrowing these discounting methods for their own uses. By his own admission, Jeff Fox, chief brand and concept officer at Pizza Hut, acknowledges that discounted menus aren’t really a thing in the pizza vertical, but changes in consumer preferences, aided along by fast food’s willingness to satisfy them, have forced Pizza Hut to adapt or die. And adapt it has with a new “$5 Flavor Menu” announced Monday (Jan. 4).

“Value menus don’t really happen in the pizza category,” Fox said in a statement. “Our single-minded consumer promise is to make it easy for them to get a better Pizza Hut pizza, as well as all of our flavorful food. One way we’re able to do that is by offering a variety of compelling quality options for $5 each. Our intent was to create the most flavor-filled and broadly appealing value menu ever in the food category and we think we’ve done that with the $5 Flavor Menu.”

While it’s more than fair to say that a monkey-see, monkey-do attitude is dictating which fast food companies or their close associates launch discounted menus, The Daily Meal posited that the glut of affordable, low-end menu options at McDonald’s and Burger King is just as likely a market reaction to the number of high-priced casual dining options also serving burgers, pizza and the like (think Shake Shack, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.).

Fast food joints aren’t ever going to compete against this next segment of the food vertical in atmosphere and service, but the resurgence of discount menus prove that they’re drawing clear battle lines when it comes to offering a better value.

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