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Why Do Fast-Food Retailers Keep the Hidden Menu Hidden?

The history of the hidden menu is often contested, but by most accounts, it began with In-N-Out Burger in the early 60s. The company’s bond with the public took on a life of its own as the chain tried desperately to meet it’s guests’ demands for customized burgers, and the “secret menu” was born, featuring Animal Style fries and a Neopolitan shake. Although the company has now trademarked many of its signature “secret” offerings and displays their names of the official website, the allure of the exclusivity of the items has helped keep the chain dear to Americans’ hearts.

The fact that many fast-food retailers, who have watched as the fast-casual segment grew to the point of infringing upon their markets, have hidden menus is fairly puzzling. Just last month, a McDonald’s manager in Scotland “confirmed” via Reddit that a secret menu of sorts at McDonald’s exists. Although it’s not officially endorsed by the company, the menu is a listing of “hacked” burgers that can be created using the company’s policy of taking custom orders. The real question is: why isn’t the company promoting the fact that consumers can get customized burgers at its restaurants, rather then letting the “secret menu” story run wild?

One aspect of the business plan that helped Chipotle Mexican Grill ascend to the top of the fast-casual space is the transparency of its food, and I’m not just talking about how it relentlessly attempts to document it’s food supply chain. Rather, Chipotle employees cook your meal to-order, just the way you like it, through a glass window. You can watch your burrito as it transforms from ingredients into a meal, giving you a strange sense of ownership before the product ever even touches your tongue. This method has been adopted by countless other success stories in the fast-casual market, but the fast-food industry is slow to embrace the idea.

The reveal of McDonald’s secret menu has launched some buzz into the idea, and websites like HackTheMenu.com and SecretMenus.com have taken the task of archiving the hidden foods for experimental diners. KFC, Taco Bell, 5 Guys Burgers and more are all ready to serve you a special meal. And while the allure of a secret menu can let some customers feel like they are part of an exclusive club, for the large national chains, why keep the menu under wraps? Millennials value choice more than their predecessors when it comes to food, so it seems to be a disservice to their brand to hide their more adventurous choices from consumers.