Years ago, living in Southern California, I was introduced to the concept of a secret menu. A coworker, with all of the enthusiasm of someone who had stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls, ushered me into a world of “off menu” or “secret” ordering at a popular fast food hamburger destination, In-N-Out.
This not-so-secretly guarded menu consisted of items that were not-so-out-there derivations of what was already on the menu. So, if you carefully approached the counter and asked with utmost confidence, you could get anything from a grilled cheese sandwich, a 4-decker burger, or just about anything grilled with mustard. The novelty was somewhat lost on me, but I guess feeling special and “in-the-know” are priceless.
Seems that the sort of guerilla marketing that In-N-Out engaged in more than a decade ago is somewhat of a savvy marketing move that others are more than willing to copy. NPR recently ran a story about such secret menus, and how they capture the imagination of bored consumers everywhere (no surprise that such “secret menus” are largely limited to chain fast food operations). As reported on NPR, “If you have a secret menu or if customers know the secret menu, they feel like they’re insiders,” says Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication. “They feel kind of a personal connection to the restaurant; they feel they know something that maybe not everybody else does. And everyone loves that.” Now places like Panera Bread (doing for bread what Starbucks has done to coffee) are jumping on board with things like sandwiches without bread that you could order covertly, or the McDonald’s “Monster Mac” which consists of an emboldened Big Mac with 8 “meat” patties.
The lingering question is should we care? Are diners at such establishments so bored that they need the gimmick of such “secret menus” to feel special? Is the world coming to an end?