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How McDonald’s Overloaded Its 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.

Source: McDonald's data; BurgerBusness.com

Source: McDonald’s data; BurgerBusiness.com

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 then departed in 2011.

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.

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.

9 comments to How McDonald’s Overloaded Its Menu

  • Interesting, and not just because Intellaprice follows McDonald’s menu closely so I feel the pain! As Fenton says, the balance between the consumer desire for new news and everything else clearly has been lost. How about a follow up article detailing the product mix?!? It would be great to know how the 80/20 rule really shakes out.

  • Part of the blame here goes to Wall Street and their constant demands for “Innovation”. But then McDonald’s needs a management team that has the discipline to eliminate poor selling items and properly filter new ideas. New product introductions don’t make a big splash when a restaurant has a huge menu. When we launched the first McRib or Chicken McNuggets the McDonald’s menu was tiny and a new product was big news. Even a fourth flavor milkshake drove traffic! While new products had failed before it was a shock to the McDonald’s system when, after devoting tremendous resources to the launch, the Arch Deluxe failed miserably in the mid-1990s. McDonald’s management spent months in total denial that it would catch on. In truth, it was just another big burger and there was enough on the menu already. That same kind of denial has allowed the menu to outgrow the restaurants over the past few years. It’s good to hear management deal with some realities but will they have to discipline to solve the problem?

  • Dom

    Build Your Own Quarter Pounder, that is a sure fire way to increase your lines,slow speed of service,and increase waste.

    I’d be surprised if that makes it out of test.

  • watt d fark

    The Paradox of Choice yet again. people think they want more but it just makes them take too long to choose, then they second-guess their choices, not a happy situation

    There’s a law of diminishing returns in effect here…if you have three items and add a fourth, it’s a significant upgrade. But have 40 items and add #41, who cares? It’s lost in the clutter

    And the last McD’s sandwich I had, some chicken ranch thing, was an affront against food–result of a kitchen staff with too many things to learn and manage? It will be a loooong time before I go back.

  • Newt Yorker

    There is some sort of Malcolm Gladwellian lesson for McDonald’s to learn here.

  • Hoow

    McDonald’s best months of SRS with the Chicken MCBites, the Spicy and Fish off-shorts didn’t get the same traction.The problem for McDonald’s is their menu development dilute new additions to a point that the only thing the new menu generates is complexity. McDonald’s menu development is too analytical, too slow, too many staff layers all of which requires an internal Corporate restructuring, rethinking, and reposition.

  • Joe

    I have been a big fan of McDonald’s over the past few years with the dollar menu, but now as this article has mentioned, it is WAY too complicated and has really begun to sink many restaurants with LONG wait times. I don’t understand the need for all these spinoffs of sandwiches. Stick with the McDouble and McChicken and be done with it. I honestly have avoided McDonald’s recently and have made a point to see how many cars are at the ‘wait stations’ in the drive-thru. I feel bad for the employees at each restaurant that have to deal with this corporate garbage that they have had thrown at them.

  • Ed Johnson

    From the inside looking out, I can tell you that weaning us off of this overloaded menu is almost impossible and we don’t see any relief in site for years to come. If anything, it will grow some more.

  • Wayne

    Aww man I miss the Arch Deluxe lol. Anyway it used to be simple to go to McD’s because you knew you were probably going to pick between 2 or 3 items max. Now I go there and keep second guessing myself on what I want. I find it more difficult to make up my mind and I end up sometimes regretting my choice. There is far too much choice. Heck the value meals number nearly 20, that oughta tell you something as I remember when it was under 10.
    I like new food choices and attempts to branch out (beef prices haven’t helped McD’s there) but they need to focus on doing a great job at a few things instead of being mediocre at many.

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