(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

I'll take a McGangBang, please: How fast food secret menus became the darlings of the new foodie elite

Don't know what a burritodilla is? How embarrassing for you ...


Ashlie D. Stevens
July 24, 2015 6:46PM (UTC)

The fabled McDonald’s “Land-Sea-and-Air Burger,” the bubblegum frappuccino at Starbucks, Taco Bell's Incredible Hulk — whether your friendly chain restaurant cashier will actually be familiar with these items or not, customers are increasingly taken by the idea that “secret menu” picks like these exist at their favorite fast food joint.

Rumors of ridiculous off-menu items with equally off-beat names (example: “The McGangBang”-- a McChicken Sandwich placed directly inside a McDouble burger, buns and all) have circulated for a while, inspiring websites and hashtags like the popular #hackthemenu. The phenomenon that was most recently addressed in a Reddit AMA with a McDonald’s manager, who acknowledged that while “the workers might not know it by name... if you explain what it is, and are willing to pay for all the ingredients, it's just another 'grill order' that we can make up.”

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But the real question is why do people invest the time into researching, documenting, and oftentimes explaining and re-explaining their secret menu order to the flummoxed fry cook-- and why do chain restaurants in the business of pushing out ready-made meals make a concession for these requests?

Because it’s actually a win-win for everyone involved (except perhaps for the person waiting in line behind you).

Dr. Brian Wansink is the founder of the Cornell Food Lab and the author of "Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life." Much of his work focuses on consumer behaviors surrounding food.

Wansink explains that a potential motivation behind customers seeking out these secret menus is a way to separate themselves from their peers, however, it’s done in a way that won’t necessarily be perceived as ostentatious.

“It’s a way for customers to feel elitist in a society where it is decidedly uncool to be elitist,” Wansink said. “That feeling of ‘I know something you don’t.’”

It makes sense -- using a secret order at a fast food chain as a way to flaunt insider knowledge is not exactly the same as Instagramming your meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. You avoid the appearance of overt snobbery — not to mention, it’s much more cost-effective in the long run.

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In a 2014 Business Insider video, journalist Will Wei went to a Manhattan McDonald’s to test the veracity of the secret menu claims. He found that, like the manager from the Reddit AMA said, the kitchen was fine making whatever he asked for as long as they had the ingredients and he was willing to pay.

Wei decided on the aforementioned McGangBang, a Monster Mac -- eight Big Macs stacked atop each other -- and a Land-Sea-and-Air Burger, which is a Big Mac stuffed with a fish and chicken patty. Even with the insane amount of food he walked out with, Wei only ended up paying $26.72.

Yet despite its humble disguise, it could also be argued that the #hackthemenu phenomenon has its roots in elitist foodie culture. Jen Karetnick is a Miami-based restaurant reviewer and food-travel writer since 1992 and current dining critic for MIAMI Magazine. She says that since our culture is so competitive, being able to turn friends onto something they didn’t know existed has switched from a way of sharing enthusiasm into a form of one-upmanship. But not everyone can afford the hottest restaurants in town with the best chefs, so people look for more affordable niches.

“They declare burgers their territory, or tacos, or some other affordable street food where they can reign supreme. That’s where the fast food culture comes in,” Karetnick said.

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She continued: “It’s a snide, insider take on foodie-ism. The proponents are saying, ‘Hey, look how utilitarian I am. I’m so not a snob. I just happen to really know something about this subject that you might consider beneath you, but is really quite hipster because it’s underground. Allow me to educate you because I’ve been at it for quite some time now while you’re clearly still on the outside.’”

Regardless of the intentions behind the movement, researchers like Dr. Wansink see the hubbub and increasing popularity of secret menus as a positive for the restaurants.

“It’s a way for chains that maybe lost their cool a few years ago to get some of that back-- especially ones that are locally owned or managed,” Wansink said. “People feel like there is something special about them again.”

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Karetnick concurs: “The cynical side of me says that this whole ‘secret menu’ is a ‘secret advertising campaign’ that was ‘secretly leaked.’ It’s the old Burger King slogan meets elitism. And clearly, since everyone is talking about it, it’s working.”

So everyone wins. The restaurants get free advertising and a dose of hipster mystique to up their street cred; happy customers chow down on a unique concoction, composed of every meat product and special sauce in the kitchen, in a way that allows them— somehow — to feel good about it.


Ashlie D. Stevens

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fast Food Foodie Culture Foodies Mcdonalds Menu Hack Secret Menus Starbucks Taco Bell

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