The fast food market has taken some major blows over the past year, what with rising minimum wages and diners' growing affections for more upscale (and often, healthier) fast-casual concepts, leaving the pillars of the fast food industry scrambling for ways to bring in customers (and revenue). From launching all-day breakfast to ridiculous marketing ploys like free fast food-themed weddings, the fight to stay on top has even taken the fast food giants to space. The latest battle in the pursuit of the almighty dollar has the kings of fast food going head-to-head to see who can create the most desirable value meal, with new offers meant to replace the dollar menus of yore.
The first to give its value menu a fresh-for-2016 makeover was McDonald's. Their latest promotion, McDonald's McPick 2 for $2, was announced in November as a replacement for the company's long-time Dollar Menu. Launched nationwide on January 4, it currently includes four items: McDouble, McChicken, small fries, and the recently launched mozzarella sticks; customers can pick two items for a total of $2. This deal's got an expiration date: The promo is currently scheduled to end February 8.
Senior vice president of marketing Deborah Wahl stated that the change was aimed at "customers [that] are looking for choice and flexibility." But really, McDonald's has a financial reason for making the switch: Thanks to inflation, its Dollar Menu was no longer as profitable as the company needed it to be, especially amidst current financial hardships that panicked franchisee owners. The company began its attempts to steer customers clear of the unprofitable menu by launching the "Extra Value Menu" in 2012, though it did little to thwart the Dollar Menu's popularity. Its next attempt, dubbed the "Dollar Menu & More," was met with confusion by loyal Dollar Menu fans. Only time will tell if the McPick 2 menu will find favor with drive-thru devotees.
Not to be out-cheaped, Burger King followed up with its own promotional menu the next day, offering a five-item combo for $4. The meal includes a bacon cheeseburger, four piece chicken nuggets, small french fries, a small drink, and a warm chocolate chip cookie. Because the menu offers a complete — if nutritionally devoid — meal rather than a choice of individual items, it may lack the broader appeal of other value menus that give customers more options to customize.
Hopping on new value menu bandwagon isn't the only recent copycat move by Burger King: It recently began selling all-day breakfast at one of its New Jersey locations directly across the street from reigning all-day breakfast king McDonald's. But BK's value menu also differs from McDonald's in another big way: It doesn't yet have an end date in sight.
Offering variety in its new value menu was paramount for stuffed-crust purveyor Pizza Hut. On the very same day as the McDonald's launch, Pizza Hut debuted a new $5 Flavor Menu. There are seven items offered in the new promotion — a double order of breadsticks, medium one-topping pizzas, pasta, eight boneless wings, a chocolate chip cookie pizza, and a four-pack of soft drinks. Much like the McDonald's Pick 2, customers have to order at least two items to get the $5 price.
"What we wanted to do was make sure we had the broadest appealing value menu in the category," the company's Chief Brand and Concept Officer explains in an interview with Business Insider. He elaborates on the menu choices: "Most consumers have tried some of our items, but they haven't tried them all in combination." In addition to bringing in customers who are hunting for a deal, the variety of the menu is intended to encourage consumers to expand their usual pizza order and try something new — in hopes that they'll discover a new must-have item that would drive up the total bill for any future orders.
While fast food chains are scrambling to one-up each other's value menu options, they're still hoping you'll shell out for more expensive, premium menu items instead: The Associated Press notes that "chains do their best to make sure regulars stick to the pricier meals they usually order. At a New York City McDonald's, an employee said she was told not to suggest the $2-for-2 deal, but wait for people to order it on their own."
But is this bargain-priced battle a moot point? So-called "deal seekers" only account for about 15 percent of customers, and the sought-after millennial demographic seems to be more concerned with other issues like healthier, more high-quality food and greater transparency around ingredients. Or perhaps McDonald's, Burger King, and the like should take a cue from Chick-fil-A, which is currently hipping up its own image by introducing oh-so-trendy kale salad created for by so hot-right-now Atlanta chef Ford Fry.