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5 items that fast-food restaurants secretly want you to buy

If you run a fast food restaurant, there are the items that customers actually buy — and the ones that you actively want them to buy. Sometimes, the two aren’t the same.

Reasons can vary. Some foods have higher profit margin — or they just get people talking. So for customers who want to know, here’s a list of five things that fast-food eateries really want you to purchase:

Limited-time offers

Called LTOs in the restaurant trade, these gimmicky foods and drinks often come with a “while supplies last” warning.

In some cases, they’re pegged to a particular season, while other times, the chains say upfront that the snazzy, short-term menu item will only be available for a few weeks or days. (We’re looking at you, Starbucks, and your Unicorn and new Zombie Frappuccinos.)

The offerings might fall into the category of stunt food along the lines of Burger King’s Mac n’ Cheetos, cheesy macaroni crusted in bright orange Cheetos dust, and KFC’s Double Down sandwich, which replaces the bun with pieces of fried chicken.

Why do they want you to buy? The chains are hoping you will shell out for these new dishes and beverages to generate buzz — and ultimately, sales. Regular customers want to try the new social-media-friendly treats, as do people who’ve not been to the restaurant recently. And once there, chains know some customers will spend more than they planned to by adding other items to their orders.


While not every quick-service chain offers booze, those that do stand to drink up lots of profits. Restaurant companies are lifting their glasses to margins as high as 25% for beer and 90% for mixed drinks, according to one industry estimate.

Pizza Hut has been serving beer since the chain was founded almost 60 years ago. Chipotle Mexican Grill has long known that its cuisine goes well with margaritas, so it is testing a frozen version. Taco Bell is joining the game by adding alcoholic beverages to the menu at the estimated 150 downtown locations it’s opening.

Soft drinks and french fries

When it comes to pure profit, this is where chain restaurants clean up.

Profit margins are huge on these fast-food staples. Soft drinks are, after all, little more than water and syrup. The potatoes from which fries are made are one of the cheapest starchy vegetables on the planet. Add salt to the mix and the fast-food giants swoon.

Add-ons and add-ins

While customers come in for cheap meals — often as low as $5 — adding another item or boosting the price of an item with a topping can make a big difference in the average check. These small bumps in spending come in the form of additional items a diner throws into his or her order, like guacamole on a Subway sandwich or swapping out the regular beef for more premium steak in a burrito. That often-mocked “Want fries with that?” question has an important purpose after all.

Basically anything you order online

No, you can’t eat your computer, smartphone or tablet, but fast food folks prefer you order foods and drinks using technology rather than through a human staffer. That’s because online customers come back to the restaurant 6% more often and spend 20% more each time, according to a 2016 Deloitte study. Better start spelling “ka-ching” with an @ sign.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer


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