Secret Weapon

A while ago I was in LA on a Discovery Tour and visited a haute hotdog concept called Slaw Dogs. The line-up of builds was impressive. They had dozens of variations from a Hotdog Rueben to a Breakfast Dog, but most impressive was when they brought out their ‘Secret Menu’ for two women who were undecided about what they wanted. How fun.

Weeks later I went to PF Chang’s with my sister and brother-in-law who ordered an off menu item—Chang’s Shrimp which had been taken off the menu years before. Since being deleted, it is now a ‘secret’ that those in the know could order. My brother-in-law told me, “They make it for me.” He loves having the ‘inside scoop.’ It made him a huge PF Chang’s fan, and the fact that he could tell me about it absolutely made his day.  And that’s the point…Secret Menus make guests feel good because they get what they want and feel like they’re getting special treatment.

But secret menus are also good for restaurants. Having headed up marketing for several restaurant chains, I know how tough menu development can be…especially when staying on trend with new items means you have to let go of old established items to keep the total size of the menu down to an executable level.

I read research a long time ago that the single biggest reason people stop going to their favorite restaurant is because the restaurant deleted their favorite item. I’ve been convinced of that over the years as focus groups have told me the same story of abandoning a restaurant because their favorite item had been 86’ed.  That’s why restaurant chains, like the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group where I was Chief Marketing Officer, keep recipes, server training materials and POS keys for deleted items so that if guests request a deleted item they can still make the item for them like Bravo’s Shrimp Fra Diavolo. It’s really a win-win. The guest gets what he wants because the restaurant has the infrastructure in place to do it without taking up valuable menu real estate.

And it’s not just deleted menu items that find their way to a secret menu. Often, secret menus include items that solve a guest problem—nutritional or otherwise. Someone told me if I was too late for breakfast at McDonald’s I could ask for a Mc10:30. (To test the theory, the other day I asked my local McDonald’s if they had heard of the Mc10:35 and the cashier said to me, “I wish!” implying that even though their location didn’t serve it, it would be a great idea and would make her and a lot of her customers very happy.)

Secret Menus cater to the undecided, to the health conscious, to the picky eaters and to the spurge market.

  • The Undecided—just like Slaw Dogs, some build-your-own concepts like Neopolitan pizza place 800 Degrees offer suggestions for great combinations…this can really help expedite the ordering process and lower the anxiety level for indecisive patrons
  • The Dietary Conscious—Panera Bread in deference to their low carb customers has recently launched a Hidden Menu with power protein bowls for breakfast and protein options at lunch, Popyeye’s offers their sandwiches ‘Naked’ without the battering and In N Out Burger offers their burger ‘Protein Style’ wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun
  • The Just Plain Picky Eaters—A picky eater friend of mine is executive vice president of a great chain of restaurants in New Orleans. To accommodate her preference for no sauces, the chain instituted a special register key just for her that is now commonly used for anyone who prefers simpler presentations.  I happen to hate burritos, but I just found out that Chipotle will make my chosen ingredients into a quesadilla instead of a burrito if I just ask—that’s all the incentive I need to go back
  • The Spurge Market— McDonald’s Pie McFlurry is where you can buy a Baked Apple Pie and a McFlurry and have them blended together, Wendy’s offers a Grand Slam with 4 burgers, and In N Out’s 4×4 includes 4 burgers and 4 slices of cheese, but legend has it that they once served a 100×100! (NOTE: A side benefit of keeping these items off menu is that their calorie counts stay off menu too.)  Some things are better left a secret!


What all of these Hidden Menus, Secret Menus and Not-So-Secret menus suggest is that great operators are finding inventive ways to give customers exactly what they want while insuring the consistency and execution their customers demand.  For chains that can’t devote valuable menu space to items that only have limited appeal, but that want customers seeking esoteric items to know that they are available, secret menus are a great option. For chain operators to simplify the complicated ordering process of picky customers and to maintain consistency on even quirky orders, secret menus allow restaurants to do so. To build deeper relationships and an insider feeling among customers that can spur them to share via social media, Secret Menus are the perfect tool. In fact, in today’s intensely competitive battle for market share, a secret menu can be a real Secret Weapon.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.