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How McDonald’s and other restaurant chains are changing their menus as the country reopens

The menu is getting larger at the golden arches as restaurants begin to reopen

McDonald's is adding back items on its menu after limiting offerings during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Fear not, meat lovers: the Bacon McDouble is returning to McDonald’s menus in July. So are vanilla ice cream cones and chocolate chip cookies. And hot tea. Meanwhile, the return of the salad could be months away.

State and local economies are reopening (even in states where coronavirus cases are rising) and restaurants are climbing out from behind their takeout bunkers. One early mover is McDonald’s, which slimmed down its menu in March to eliminate all-day breakfast, several dessert and beverage options and even some varieties of hamburgers as the pandemic slashed consumer demand for dining out.

Now, McDonald’s is slowly adding items back, but it’s doing so carefully: the company considered more than 140 regional and national food items for the next phase of its menu, the company told restaurant owners on a call this week, first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Only seven core national items made the cut.

“Restaurants keep adding items to their menus because it seems like such an obvious way to add revenue,” said Sara Senatore, senior research analyst at Bernstein Research. “But at some point it becomes apparent that it’s not costless to add items.”

And at McDonald’s, that means — at least for a time — no more grilled chicken sandwiches or chicken tenders (McNuggets are still available) or yogurts or bagels.

“More than ever, customers are relying on McDonald’s to serve delicious food quickly, conveniently and safely, which is why we transitioned to a limited menu in April,” the company said in a statement. “This decision helped simplify operations for our restaurant crew while also improving our customers’ experience. Now, we’re reintroducing some of our iconic offerings while keeping our menu streamlined — focusing on expert preparation, great service, and as always, quality ingredients. With customers at the center of everything we do, we’ll continue listening to them and evolving our menu to meet their needs.”

Other quick-service and fast-casual restaurants have cut menu items, too. Red Robin got rid of 55 items to streamline operations during the pandemic. It said earlier this week that those dishes won’t return. Wendy’s briefly trimmed its menu down in May when a supply chain hitch created a beef shortage. A company representative declined to comment.

Restaurants add menu items (industry insiders call it “menu innovation”) to broaden offerings and bring in new customers. Think about the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, said Jonathan Maze, editor in chief of Restaurant Business magazine. Consumers already knew Popeye’s served fried chicken; the sandwich, though, brought in new clientele.

But the cost of expanding menus means more things can go wrong. Customers take longer to order. Order inaccuracy increases. Ingredient costs go up. Restaurants slim down their menus in the name of efficiency. Instead of needing to purchase two kinds of lettuce, one for salads and one for sandwiches, now McDonald’s needs only one, Maze said. Instead of needing two kinds of potatoes during the lunch rush, one for hash browns and one for fries, the company needs only one.

“The idea is to simplify operations as much as you can and speed up that service,” he said. “It worked to a great degree.”

How great? McDonald’s locations operated primarily via drive-through during the first few months of the pandemic. The limited menu cut 25 seconds off drive-through wait times.

Consider that the average McDonald’s drive-through order from speaker box to food pickup takes a little less than three minutes, Senatore said. And McDonald’s already cut 15 to 20 seconds off order times in 2019 because of smaller menu reductions and internal productivity incentives, added Peter Saleh, managing director and senior restaurant analyst at BTIG.

That means year over year, McDonald’s drive-through service times have dropped by nearly a third. That’s the difference, he said, between a hungry consumer seeing a McDonald’s, thinking the drive-through line is too long and driving past, or that consumer seeing cars steadily moving and pulling in line.

“This 25 seconds is almost like throwing a Hail Mary at the last second of the Super Bowl and making the catch in the end zone,” Saleh said.

McDonald’s also reported that customers were more satisfied with their food during the period of the shrunken menu. Food quality was better, the Journal reported, and order accuracy improved. Franchise owners were pleased by the move, too, the Journal reported. They’d been clamoring for some time for a simplified menu that would reduce their costs and boost efficiency.

Representatives from the National Owners Association, which represents McDonald’s franchisees, did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts say not to expect McDonald’s menu to stay limited for long. The seven items making their returns are a sign that the company feels the need to get more competitive as dine-in and fast-casual restaurants reopen with increased capacity.

“Remember a month ago and six weeks ago, they weren’t competing with some of these even fast-casual places whose dining rooms weren’t open,” Saleh said. “Now the competition is coming back online. … The competitive environment is going to get more tense. The only way to defend your share is to create more menu innovation and that means new products.”