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COVID-19 Experience: Restos May Keep Limited Menus

As restaurants – particularly big-chain franchise outlets – cautiously reopen for dine-in business, some brands admit they’re toying with the idea of keeping smaller, more-focused menus even after the COVID-19 crisis is over. They have their reasons for doing so, and I have some observations on why they should…

BK Whopper Meal - © Burger KingTraditional Burger Joint Meal: Burger, Fries and Beverage. Maybe Burger Joints
shouldn’t cut their menus all the way back to the bare basics, but current
realities demand a stronger focus on their core strengths.

Amid the controversy surrounding the re-opening of some restaurants for dine-in business – and the spike in new coronavirus cases in some areas where governments have caved to the demands of commerce to start re-opening the economy – there’s a quiet but potentially major trend in the making. Some restos, particularly major Fast Food chains, are apparently considering continuing to offer what they’ve referred to as ‘restricted’ menus even after the COVID-19 crisis is over. Forced to cut their menus to the core essentials to make possible their takeout and delivery operations during the pandemic, operators say they’ve learned some important lessons from the experience.

McDonald’s franchisees applaud the move

In a letter to its members, the National Owner’s Association (NOA), a lobby group representing McDonald’s franchisees in the U.S., suggests permanently trimming non-essentials from the brand’s menu. NOA proposes that high-cost, high-prep-effort items such as Salads, Grilled Chicken Sandwiches and Chicken Tenders should not return to McDOnald’s menu, and that All-Day Breakfast be discontinued.

“The limited menu and ease of operations are allowing our teams to focus and provide blazing fast service,” NOA told members. “We are convinced. Keeping our menu’s simplified is your NOA’s number one priority. Our second priority is a singular focus on our drive thrus.”

McDonald’s corporate responded with a statement saying, in part, “Our temporary limited menu has helped us provide the best possible customer experience while simplifying operations in our kitchens and for our crew during the pandemic. We are partnering closely with our franchisees to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on restaurant operations and evaluate the best path forward for our national menu.”

Dick and Mac were right

The original McDonald’s concept, pioneered by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald of San Bernardino, CA, was based on serving only three things: standardized Burgers, Fries and Shakes. But they focused laser-like on the need for speed while at the same time ensuring quality and consistancy of the product. The result? They were so busy with that skeletal menu that they needed to buy 8 Shake mixers for their single, original restaurant to keep the beverages moving through the take-out windows as fast as the Burgers. The mixer salesman – one Ray Crok – was so entranced by Dick and Mac’s operation that he partnered with them and franchised it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As I’ve said for years, now…

There’s shakeout due in the Fast Food sector any time now, and the COVID-19 crisis may be just what it takes to trigger that painful but necessary step in the industry’s evolution.

For the past several decades, Fast Food joints have been expanding their menus, trying to achieve footholds on the turf of other brands by copying or adding competitors’ menu items to their own bills of fare. That’s cost operators more and more in inventories, training and associated outlays; so much that in some cases operators have been having trouble sustaining standards of product quality and service. Wait times for orders have crept up at all Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) in the past decade to the point where some customers are expressing their dissatisfaction. At the same time, Fast Food sector revenues have generally been flat, and some operators have even seen sales decline.

We began to hear echoes of the shakeout to come as far back as the middle of the past decade when troubled chains started ‘getting back to basics’ by focusing on their core competencies after letting their menus bloat into huge, multi-page monstrosities. One of the first was Chipotle’s, which had suffered a series of food poisoning scandals and needed to rein in costs and raise it’s renovated brand profile.

Quiet conglomeration

Other chains have quietly been bought up by holding companies which have typically acquired a number of resto brands with different, non-competing specialties. Take, for instance, Restaurant Bands International (RBI), which owns Tim Horton’s, Popeye’s and Burger King. All three chains have similar operating regimes, but none steps on the others’ toes vis-à-vis their core menu items.

Consider also the Purchase of Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings (BWW) by Inspire Brands. Arby’s ‘have the meats’ and BWWs do the Chicken, and never the twain do meet on the menu battlefield.

My take

Fast Food chains have learned that they can’t go on forever trying to be ‘all things to all people’. But until the COVID-19 lock down, they had not been forced to face that reality, get off their complacent duffs, and act. In a situation that called for do-or-die measures to weather the three-month closure of restaurants in most regions of the developed world, operators learned that they could, indeed, get along sales-wise on tighter, more-focused menus, and enjoy service and efficiency improvements at the same time. Not to mention lower inventory costs and higher customer satisfaction.

On the down side, the restaurant owners’ lobby groups predict that as many as 75 percent of locally-owned, one-off restos will not re-open after the COVID-19 crisis passes. Millions of resto jobs will be permanently lost as a result. Resto supply companies will suffer permanent sales hits, and some of them will doubtless go out of business as well.

The real question, as I see it, is how we can help the small-resto segment rebound from the pandemic disaster and restore not only the economic stability they helped provide in their communities but the menu diversity they offered. The solution to that problem remains elusive. For now. But as diners, we can all step forward and let small resto owners know that, if they can find a way to re-open, we will be there to patronize them, just like we did before the crisis.

~ Maggie J.