‘You’re the chef’: Fast-food chains embrace menu hackers’ creative combinations

Menu hacks rarely escape Meera Patel.

The marketing director for fast-food chain Harvey’s keeps a growing list of ways customers mash together or transform menu items into something new.

Some are as simple as coating chicken nuggets in a blend of barbecue and ghost pepper sauces — nicknamed “cowboy caviar” — but others take things to a new level, like dropping pie or mini cinnamon sugar doughnuts into a milkshake or ensconcing a hotdog in onion rings.

“Two weeks ago, when I was in a restaurant for a (photo) shoot, someone ordered our bacon double-cheese poutine with just an Angus burger patty and then cut up the Angus patty and put it into the poutine,” said Patel.

“There are some crazy things out there that people are doing.”

Conventional wisdom might view such combinations at fast-food chains as an irritant. They can add complexity and delays to the ultra-streamlined processes restaurants have perfected to quickly pump out items that taste the same no matter what location you order them at.

But chains are increasingly embracing hacks — in most cases, as long as diners build the dishes themselves — and letting the most raved-about concoctions shape their menus, marketing, equipment and training.

The reasons restaurants are leaning into the phenomenon is as much about appeasing customers as it is about boosting brand awareness and profitability.

“More and more restaurants understand they need to move toward the social element versus just a value play, gut-fill experience,” said Robert Carter, a food industry analyst with the StratonHunter Group.

Carter and other industry experts agree menu hacking is not new. People have been reimagining fast food for decades, but social media has pushed the pastime to the extreme. 

A lot of early reimagining came from secret menus — unadvertised dishes whose existence often spread by word of mouth — and an increased access to customizations such as choosing burrito fillings or burger or pizza toppings, Carter said. 

Cafés like Starbucks even made individualization their specialty, allowing customers to adorn drinks with whipped cream, extra pumps of flavoured syrup, custom quantities of ice or stronger coffee brews.

Starbucks now counts 170,000 different drink combinations — a staggering figure when one considers the company only started to see personalization soar around 1989, when it first allowed milk customizations.

“We’ve just been expanding since then,” said Deborah Neff, Starbucks Canada’svice-president of product and marketing.

The growing inclination to go beyond standard customizations to menu hacking, many say, is being driven by social media, shorter attention spans, an affinity for all things new and a younger generation.

“They want constant instant gratification and constant stimulation and often, it comes from them combining and mashing things,” said Patel.

Much of it gets shared online by influencers demonstrating how to make unofficial dishes like the Land, Air and Sea, which combines a Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, and McChicken.

For Jay McKinney, the Calgary man behind @tacotycoon420, the “big nug” has been a major hit. The sandwich ditches the middle bun in a Big Mac and replaces it with nuggets. It landed him more than 1.4 million TikTok views. (He is also behind the hotdog surrounded by onion rings.)

His menu hacking began when he moved from B.C.’s Lower Mainland to Calgary during the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t know anyone, so he started reviewing tacos. 

Eventually, he ran out of taco joints and switched to testing wacky and wonderful dishes he creates himself. 

“Now, the staff at my local Harvey’s know me and they’re kind of up on my shenanigans,” he said, laughing.

Fellow diners and his followers treat him as inspiration too, recreating his orders. 

“It’s like a snowball effect,” Patel said.

She saw this first-hand when menu hackers started combining Harvey’s poutine and pickles.

It led to the November launch of limited time menu item pickle pickle poutine, where skin-on fries are topped with deep-fried pickles, diced pickles and ranch.

“It got such great love from people — and hate,” said Patel.

“Pickles are very polarizing. You either love them or you hate them. They’re kind of like Marmite.”

It was no quick decision to launch the dish. Every item on the Harvey’s menu is the product of months, if not years, of planning and deliberation.

The chain explores whether customers are likely to try any new creation and then delves into perfecting a recipe and ensuring suppliers will be able to stock enough ingredients to make it in high volumes.

Harvey’s considers the cost, preparation time, whether it requires new equipment to produce and even how long the dish will hold up.

“Does it travel well if someone’s going to order it at the restaurant and then get it delivered? Is it going to still look good 15 to 20 minutes later?” Patel said.

“All of those little things come into play.”

McDonald’s Canada mulled similar factors when it debuted a slate of menu hacks last week including a chicken cheeseburger and a sweet chili junior chicken.

A&W did the same ahead of its February launch of the piri piri potato buddy, a hash-brown-filled sandwich.

Creative customers are also behind Starbucks Canada’s “pink drink” — a strawberry açai beverage with passionfruit and coconut milk — that landed on its menu in 2017 and more recently, the iced pumpkin cream chai tea latte.

To keep up with demand, Starbucks introduced portable blenders that quickly foam drinks and when stores are renovated or built, they are created “with cold (drinks)in mind,” Neff said.

While she wouldn’t name all outlandish orders she’s seen or comment on elaborate drinks that go viral for taking up several cups or feature at least a dozen changes, Neffs admits customization has limits.

Starbucks staff won’t put non-blender-safe ingredients in the appliance and if a drink is unwieldy, they’ll work with customers to achieve the same result in a simpler way. 

The protocol is similar at Harvey’s, where Patel said menu hackers must take a do-it-yourself approach by ordering the pieces they need to assemble their own creations.

“If someone’s asking to take a grilled chicken wrap and dip it in buffalo sauce and then put it on the grill … and then dunk it again in the sauce, that’s not going to happen because it’s operational complexity,” she said.

Despite having to roll up their sleeves and get messy, she finds customers are happy to build their own menu hacks because they feel “a little bit powerful, like you’re the chef.”

That’s certainly true for McKinney who promises, “I’m not going to stop anytime soon.”