Fast Food … it’s WAR!

By Shawn Robare

Though I don’t partake in them all that often, I have to say that I’ve been fascinated with fast food restaurants ever since I was a kid.   I think my interest stems from the fact that my parents hardly ever took me out to them (with the exception of Long John Silvers that is), so when ever I did find myself standing under the golden arches (as a fer instance) it was exciting.  Add to this the allure of meals constructed specifically for kids, and the tantalizingness (should be a word) was pretty darn high.  In the last few years the heated competition between the various franchises has led to some interesting and weird menu items, as well as some odd market strategies.  In fact in the last month the whole recession frenzy has seemed to kick this into high gear.

This past February while the wife and I were in Florida on vacation we stumbled into a local Steak ‘n Shake at a particularly opportune time as that location’s manager was giving his entire crew a dressing down/pep talk for the coming year.  Actually the whole experience of having this crew meeting right next to our table was just as awkward as it was exciting to overhear some insider SnS secrets.   Between coming down on the employees for wearing slightly off-white dress shirts and crooked bow ties, the manager shared some interesting facts that I never really thought about, foremost of which was that Steak ‘n Shake was going to debut a new fried fish sandwich during Lent to try and draw in the Friday-meat-fasting religious sect.  I suppose it makes perfect sense, but I never thought of a fast food chain debating the merits of arranging their menu according to religious convictions in order to squeeze out a little more profit.  In the same breath the manager also remarked on how this was going to be a banner time for the franchise as it was a anniversary year and that there were going to be a ton of coupons for months to come.  I have to wonder if there will be fish sandwich coupons, and if so are they going to be geared towards a Friday redemption?

Also discussed during the meeting were other new menu items and the one that I thought was kind of weird were mini-steakburgers.   From the way the manager described them, the mini-steakburgers were going to be the equivalent of White Castle or Krystal burgers, only fried with hand formed patties (instead of steamed & pre-formed.)  Talking it over later that morning with my wife I had to wonder why the chain decided to take a shot at a couple of franchises that didn’t really seem to be competitors, but we came to the conclusion that it was probably not so much that as it was a way for them to horn in on the whole $1 menu craze that’s been reshaping the overall menus at most fast food places in the last decade.   In fact I remember when Steak ‘n Shakes first started popping up in our area back in ’93-’94, and the one complaint that I kept hearing was how expensive they were compared to other burger joints.

Of course in a weird coincidence (or is it?) on the way home from vacation, we stopped at a Burger King in north Florida and low and behold the hot new menu item were the new BK Burger Shots!  More mini burgers (and mini breakfast sandwiches to boot) from another chain that didn’t seem to need to compete with Krystal and White Castle, and one that has been doing the $1 menu thing for awhile.  What is it about small food right now that is so attractive to fast food chains?  I was mentioning the Burger Shots to a friend the other day and he seemed to remember Burger King having a similar promotion back in the 80s that he was obsessed with.  Basically he loved getting small food as a kid just for the novelty of it.

I have to wonder how long it’s going to be before McDonald’s gets into the mini hamburger business?  I thought they already had as I decided to swing by my local house-that-Ronald-built, and saw that the double cheeseburger had been replaced on the dollar menu by the mysterious McDouble.  I was surprised to see the regular double cheeseburger back on the regular menu for $0.19 more, so I hit the internets to investigate.  Turns out the McDouble is practically the same burger, only with one slice of American cheese instead of two (according to  Again, I have to wonder what the strategy is in a case like this.  How does offering the same burger twice on the menu, one being a square of cheese heavier granted, score you more profit?  I suppose a million McDoubles = a million slices of cheese saved.  What does a cubic mile of fast food grade processed American cheese go for these days?


Also, I hesitate to link to the McDonald’s site as it’s loud and obnoxious, but I’m intrigued by the weird cartoon skits on the dollar menu portion of the website.  Is that H. Jon Benjamin doing voice work for them?

I’ve been trying to think how other fast food joints have tried to finagle the public into picking up their weird new menu items, and I came up with the following list of stuff that I think has been strange:

The half pound meat and potato burrito at Taco Bell (for some reason potatoes stuffed into tacos and burritos just repulses me…)

The square breakfast biscuits at Wendy’s

Speaking of breakfast, the all-in-one combo cups at Krystal seem pretty gross…

The Arby’s Roastburgers (which are just roast beef sandwiches with lettuce & tomato, and slathered with a miscellaneous “roasted burger” sauce…)

…and the new Popeye’s value menu items, including a red beans and rice wrap, or the deluxe loaded chicken wrap (read red beans and rice with a chicken strip.)

Any other weird Fast Food menu items mystify you guys?

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  • Savage

    How about Cup ‘o Pizza or chicken fried steak? $1 menus are where it’s at, esp in a bad economy. Funny how food that’s bad for you is cheaper than good for you food. I’m just waiting for the McRib to come back

  • Slick McFavorite

    I am a fast food fanatic. While we don’t eat it very often, I’ve gotta try every new concoction (I said concoc) the chains put out. I’m also a big fan of value menus. Nothing like a $2 meal. I actually worked for McDonald’s during Lent in a small predominantly Catholic town. We did $.99 fish sandwiches on Fridays and it was a mad house. We would actually sell out it was so popular. I love almost every oddity you brought up: all sliders (especially Hamburger Stand’s because they are made with Hawaiian Rolls), Beef and Potato burritos, Red Beans and Rice Chicken Wrap, and while not necessarily odd McDoubles. The double cheeseburger was Mrs. McFavorite’s and my favorite guilty pleasure, but we’re too cheap to pay an extra $.19 for a second piece of cheese. Being raised in New Mexico, I’m a burrito man. I especially never pass up a breakfast burrito. My favorite big chain burrito is Carl’s Jr’s Big Country Burrito. Your standard morning fare with country gravy! My least favorite is Burger King’s. It’s been a while since I had one, but the first/last time it was literally eggs, a sausage patty cut in half and a slice of cheese cut in half. Not to mention their “”salsa””. Love, Peace and Grease…Slick P.S. I really miss Steak’n’Shake. Never heard of Krystal’s, but m.u.s.t…s.e.e.k…n.e.w…f.a.s.t…f.o.o.d…

  • Paxton Holley

    I too am fascinated with fast food joints. I just did an article about fast food architecture a few weeks ago. I am also prepping an article about insane fast food menu items from around the world. This stuff just blows my mind. So fascinating. The Lent idea is very well followed by most franchises. The entire Filet-O-Fish sandwich concept by McD’s was created in the ’50s to address that very point. It’s what took over from the Hula Burger. The Steak ‘n Shakes here in Jax blow. BAD. My wife and I stopped eating there. We enjoy Taco Bell, Krystal and Five Guys Burgers & Fries. When I visit my cousins in Ohio I love to go to White Castle. Great article!

  • Evil Dolly

    I get nostalgic for fast food sometimes, too.. I don’t know why, but the retro fast food ads just connect me to my childhood somehow (remembering Shanghai Mcnuggets, those long style BK fish sandwiches, chicken littles, and how about the 80’s McD ads with that crescent moon headed singing guy?). Anyhow, I tried those BK burger shots last week. Awful. They weren’t individually made like they appear in the ads… both the patties and the buns came in a sort of messy sheet. So what you’re really getting is a big perforated rectangle of a burger that can be torn apart like a page of postage stamps. And even though the bun segments are small, the meat disks are much smaller. I had to tear off a whole lot of bun just to get a decent bread-to-meat ratio in a bite. Not even worth it for the novelty, really. Best to stick to a regular size burger.