Secret menus aren't so secret anymore.
This isn't on par with learning Bigfoot exists or confirming Area 51 houses unidentified flying objects, but in the past few weeks, it's become more widely known that some restaurant chains have secret menu items. These are food and drink items any customer can order, provided the customer knows to ask for it.
"In-N-Out Burger has been doing it for at least 20 years," says Jonathan Marek, senior vice president of Applied Predictive Technologies, a business analytics software company based in Arlington, Va., that works with some of the largest restaurant chains in the world, including Panera Bread, Subway and Wendy's.
Marek says secret menu items have gained prominence particularly in the past five years, explaining: "Many of these food blogs have pushed this trend quite a bit, where you've now got people going through the drive-thrus and thinking of creative ways to put different sandwiches together."
What's on the menu? Virtually every restaurant you can imagine has a secret menu, says Marek, although these items are often devised by innovative and loyal customers. Many times, these menu items are made simply because franchise owners and managers want to keep customers happy. For instance, some people insist you can order a McDonald's Monster Mac burger, which has eight patties, and Burger King apparently has an unofficial one aptly named Suicide Burger, consisting of four beef patties, four slices of cheese, bacon and special sauce.
Meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill has gained press lately for its Quesarito, because of a Fast Company writer who ordered, ate it and then wrote about the experience. It isn't on the menu, but if you ask for it, you can reportedly get a 1,500-plus calorie burrito wrapped in a quesadilla for about $10.
And according to TheDailyMeal.com, Starbucks has at least 11 drinks on a secret menu, including the Cap'n Crunch Berries Frappuccino, which is a Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino with hazelnut syrup (fans of the drink say it tastes a lot like the cereal). The website StarbucksSecretMenu.net indicates that Starbucks offers even more drinks than a customer in the know can ask for.
But by far, the restaurant most famous for its secret menu is In-N-Out Burger, a chain of burger joints in the western U.S. The company has posted its secret menu online, but not all of it, since its website says, "Here are some of the most popular items on our not-so-secret menu." (Note the word "some." We're on to you, In-N-Out Burger.)
Its hidden menu items include Protein Style, which is any burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun.
Sometimes, it's on purpose. Some restaurants are even devising new menu items and then purposefully keeping them off the menu.
"We don't really think of our secret menu as secret," says Scott Davis, executive vice president and chief concept officer for Panera Bread. "We think of it as hidden. We want people to talk about it."
Panera Bread's secret, or hidden, menu debuted in January and features six "power foods," which have lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and vegetables, and names like the Power Steak Lettuce Wrap and the Power Chicken Hummus Bowl. These items aren't on the menu in Panera Bread restaurants, but as Davis says, it isn't exactly a secret. Customers who follow the restaurant on social media channels will learn all about them.
So why is Panera Bread taking this approach? Davis says to some extent, it's a practical marketing maneuver. It keeps everything low-key.
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Having a hidden menu also alleviates a lot of the pressure that comes with rolling out a new item, says Davis, who adds that because these power foods are niche items that appeal to people interested in the Paleolithic diet, the restaurant can market accordingly to reach these consumers. He says he can envision future hidden menus aimed at people trying to watch their sodium or who are managing cholesterol.
Despite how it may seem at first glance, keeping some menu items hidden may make ordering less complicated. After all, it's easy to imagine a customer staring at a giant, sprawling menu with several hundred choices and feeling paralyzed, wondering what to order. But if you have certain dietary needs or wants, and you know you can get them at a Panera Bread or another restaurant, the hidden menu concept may become even more popular. In fact, Davis says that with the rise of handheld devices and loyalty card programs, hidden menus tailored to specific tastes could easily soon become the norm.
That, and secret menus add an element of mystery and fun to eating out. "It further engages the patron, encourages a following and promotes brand loyalty," says Christina Pappas, director of marketing for Pappas Restaurants Inc. The Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, located in Houston and Dallas, has been serving its crab macaroni and cheese since 2010 but has never put it on the menu.
Sometimes these secret menu items eventually make their way onto the actual menu. Marco's Pizza, with locations in 29 states as well as the Bahamas and Panama, is in the midst of considering a national rollout of a cinnamon-flavored dessert that for years wasn't on the menu and was only served in a Strongsville, Ohio, outlet.
"It is a great idea to have secret menus," says Karen Mishra, associate professor of marketing at the Meredith College School of Business in Raleigh, N.C. "There might be some customers who will feel left out, but for those truly loyal customers, they will feel like they have something special, just for them."
She says loyal customers are the ones restaurants especially want to cater to, in part because they will spread the word about the food to friends and family.
Another reason to keep certain menu items undercover: "The restaurant can try new things with a secret menu and decide if they want to roll them out on a national level, make some tweaks, or just pretend it never happened," says Mishra.
Corrected on 03/13/13: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Scott Davis, executive vice president and chief concept officer for Panera Bread.