Fast Food Restaurants Are Dropping Menu Items. You Should Do It, Too.

by Paul Schlossberg
Posted On: 10/23/2019

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The CNBC report, on Saturday, Sept. 14 was titled “These fast-food chains have dropped menu items this year -- here’s why.” This subject is highly relevant for our industry.

Fast food restaurant chains are using LTOs, limited time offers on the menu, to get shoppers’ attention and drive traffic to their stores -- or maybe to the drive-thru.  “(S)ome chains have turned to buzzy limited-time offers to get attention. A popular limited-time item, like Taco Bell’s Mountain Dew Baja Blast drink more than decade ago, can become a permanent addition to the menu.”

Go way back to the early fast food menus and you’ll probably find a very limited number of choices. Odds are there would be burgers, cheeseburgers, fries, soft drinks and shakes. Compare that to today’s lengthy fast food menus.

On the Wendy’s menu website we found 20 menu categories. We also checked the Taco Bell menu website and there were 14 menu categories by our count. At the McDonald’s menu website there are 12 menu categories. Digging a bit deeper, a 2013 posting noted that there were 145 total menu items at McDonald’s.

Fast food menus are often featured instore on video panels with appealing food photography to get shoppers’ attention. Those old printed menu boards tended to slow down shoppers as they ordered at the counter.

According to Greg Rapp, a menu engineering consultant quoted in the CNBC reporting, “The general rule of thumb is to have seven or less menu items under each category.” Think about that -- seven items in each category -- and there are so many categories on the menus.

A former colleague who called on McDonald’s related an anecdotal comment that he attributed to Ray Kroc, who was CEO as the chain grew from less than 10 units to become a worldwide restaurant company. “The McDonald’s menu will never have an item which generates less than 1% of sales.” It would seem the old rule, formal or informal, no longer applies.

The CNBC report went on to describe the menu changes being made at some of the fast food restaurant chains. Some well-known products are being dropped. While low sales are an important issue in menu decisions, there are products that take more time and effort to “cook” and assemble for service. For drive-thru shoppers, some of those menu items slow down delivery times and ultimately frustrate those waiting in line in their vehicles.

Some specific moves were reported and included:   

1. Taco Bell cutting out nine menu items. The items dropped were Cool Ranch and Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos, the Beef Mini Quesadilla and chips and salsa.

2.  McDonald’s changing its menu to speed up drive-thru times. Certain products were not offered from 12 midnight through 5 a.m. It dropped the Premium Burger menu items. Franchise operators could reduce their all-day breakfast line-up.

3.  Perhaps the most significant implications for our business is from what Jack in the Box learned as it “…tested cutting low-volume menu items and redundant SKUs at roughly 180 company and franchise stores earlier this year. As a result, service times sped up without hurting sales.”

The critical point, in #3 above, is that sales were NOT impacted when line items were dropped. From my own experience (that is the perspective of being a food and beverage product supplier), without exception every time we dropped line items, the same thing happened. Our overall sales increased as our customers (obviously to distributors and operators) adapted and shifted their attention and purchases to other SKUs.  

Here is the “how to” manage your product line. Be aggressive in deciding which SKUs to keep and which to drop. In a posting at vendingtimes.com, my article “What's Up With Pricing? The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” presented a Product Sales Analysis format (see nearby).

As one of my marketing mentors taught me so diligently, “Never fall in love with the products you’re selling. Someday you might have to break-up with them.”

If you want to sell more stuff, focus on your product menu. Identify the best and worst SKUs you have. Determine how to take action to increase sales and/or increase prices on products where performance can be improved. It’s time for our industry to be much more aggressive in managing our product menu.