You probably don’t think much about your fast-food order. Heck, you can order from a numbered menu and have your dinner handed to you through your car window within minutes, without ever stepping foot into the restaurant.
But fast food is big business (actually, supersize that claim—the industry pulls in $190 billion each year in revenue in America alone). So, of course, it comes with a lot of trade secrets.
From which fast-food chain is most likely to get your order wrong to the mystery of why McDonald’s soft serve machines seem to always be on strike, here are 25 secrets fast-food chains don’t necessarily want you to know.
And for more, don’t miss these 15 Classic American Desserts That Deserve a Comeback.
Colonel Harland Sanders created the chicken recipe that launched the KFC chain. With more than 600 franchised restaurants, Sanders sold his interest in the company in 1964 but agreed to remain a “goodwill ambassador.” But, the colonel was a tough critic, telling a newspaper reporter that KFC’s gravy tasted like wallpaper paste and the new crispy recipe was “nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.”
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A Starbucks employee posts videos on TikTok of her customers’ reactions as she sings to them when they pull up to the drive-thru. Cute, yes, but in a “candid camera” kind of way. Go straight to the comments section, and it seems a lot of people are having revelations that they’re being watched while ordering. “OMG y’all can see us,” one commenter wrote. “Ummm I didn’t know y’all got cameras. You know how many times I roll up picking my nose,” confessed another.
If you order at a self-serve kiosk rather than at a drive-thru or the counter, restaurants expect that you’ll spend about 20% more. The reason? The kiosks are programmed to upsell, plus customers don’t feel rushed or judged when they’re making their food choices.
Are you a Coca-Cola connoisseur who’s convinced fountain Coke and Diet Coke taste better at McDonald’s? You could be on to something. McDonald’s goes to great lengths to make its soda superior, including pre-chilling the Coke syrup, finessing the ratio of syrup to account for ice melt, and serving the beverages with wide straws to help with optimal flavor distribution across your tastebuds.
On average, the chance a fast-food restaurant will get your drive-thru order correct is 84.4%, according to a study from QSR magazine, a trade publication that covers the limited-service restaurant industry. That’s down from 89.4% in 2018, according to the magazine. Go ahead and wag your finger at more complex menus, busier lanes, and the drive-thru emphasis on speed for the uptick in wrong orders. But the fast-food joint that’s most likely to screw up your order? It’s KFC, which had a 66.1% order accuracy rate. Chick-fil-A earns an A, with the highest accuracy rate, getting orders right 94% of the time.
Before you pull out of the drive-thru, peer into your bag to double-check your dinner order. The most order errors happen during the dinner rush, according to QSR magazine’s study. Twenty percent of orders are incorrect during dinner hours, compared to 13% during the less popular, mid-morning stretch.
On average, it takes 333 seconds to get your Chick-fil-A order, according to QSR magazine’s study. But, to be fair, that’s because the chain is popular and has perpetually crowded drive-thru lanes. (And, they do have the highest accuracy on their orders). During busy times, you may spot Chick-fil-A employees standing outside with tablets to take orders and payments in an effort to speed things up.
Nachos at Chipotle. A patty melt at Five Guys. A coffee blizzard at Dairy Queen. Most fast-food spots have unofficial secret menus that you can order from if you’re in the know. Here are 30 fast-food secret menu items. (Have you heard of the “Skittles” smoothie at Jamba Juice?) Just be prepared to explain to the employees exactly what you want, because they might not know what, say, a McBrunch Burger is.
You’re craving a hot fudge sundae from McDonald’s. But what are the chances the soft serve machine is actually working? The Wall Street Journal investigated the mysterious case of Micky D’s malfunctioning McFlurry machines. Turns out, the machines probably aren’t broken, but rather are in a long, laborious process of being cleaned. The soft-serve machines take up to four hours to clean, a task that needs to be done daily.
Your blizzard, cone, or parfait from Dairy Queen isn’t actually ice cream! It all comes down to a dairy technicality. DQ’s soft-serve has just 5% milkfat content. To be considered ice cream, a product must have at least 10% milkfat, according to the FDA.
This isn’t something Dairy Queen is hiding. The chain, on its website, explains in the FAQ section: “Technically, our soft-serve does not qualify to be called ice cream.”
The grease-repelling paper your burger is wrapped in or the sleeve containing your French fries could be treated with perfluorinated chemicals. These fluorine-based chemicals are associated with cancer, fertility issues, weakened immune system, and low birth weights, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The researchers tested a sample of 400 containers and wrappers from fast-food chains and found that 56% of dessert and bread wrappers, 38% of sandwich and burger wrappers, and 20% of French fry sleeves contained fluorine.
Ah, the scentscape of a mall, from the cologne spritzes wafting through Hollister to the sweet smell of Cinnabon lingering in the food court. As it turns out, some Cinnabon stores will warm up baking sheets sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar to keep the sweet aroma in the air. Some malls, though, have “aroma restrictions” in place that limits where Cinnabon can set up.
The beloved sauce is a blend of ranch, barbecue sauce, and honey mustard. But Chick-Fil-A isn’t spilling on the exact ratio it uses to make its signature sauce.
A typical fast-food hamburger contains meat from not just dozens, but possibly hundreds of cattle, according to Fast Food Nation, written by journalist Eric Schlosser. McDonald’s confirms that in the blending process, the chain does mix beef from different delivery batches and the resulting burgers could very well be made up of the meat from more than 100 cattle.
Fast food is so highly processed that the flavor in your burgers and nuggets is often destroyed, explains Fast Food Nation. To make up for this, the tastes and aromas of fast food items are often manufactured at special chemical plants in New Jersey.
As soon as you ask for “extra,” you’ve said the magic word for employees to ring in an additional charge. Instead, try saying something like “a little more, please” when an employee is preparing your burrito bowl, suggests The Deal Guy on YouTube. BTW, Chipotle is on to you.
Another way to hack fast-food menus is to customize your meal by requesting ingredients like toppings or sauces for free, says Alex Lenhoff, founder of FastFoodNutrition.org. “Sometimes you can add free ingredients to a cheaper item to make it almost identical to a more expensive item. So go ahead, ask for that lettuce, tomato, and mayo. If you’re so bold, see if they’ll switch out your bun for a premium one.”
Fast-food employees have revealed that they are timed on how long it takes them to complete orders in the drive-thru line. So, if you’ve ever been asked to “pull forward” and they say they’ll run your order out, it could be that they’re trying to outsmart the timer so it appears you’ve been served faster than you actually were, according to a Reddit thread.
Taco Bell has restaurants in more than two dozen locations outside of the United States, with international menu items like a chicken tikka masala burrito in India and a kimchi quesadilla in Korea. But the Mexican-inspired fast-food chain hasn’t had any success in Mexico, where tacos are a traditional dish. After Taco Bell’s failed attempt to expand south of the border, Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsivais told the Associated Press that the attempt to bring tacos to Mexico was “like bringing ice to the Arctic.”
KFC has kept its mix of 11 herbs and spices closely guarded. But a Chicago Tribune reporter was shown a handwritten list of 11 herbs and spices was from a Sanders family scrapbook. White pepper is the surprise ingredient on the list, and some of the other spices and herbs include thyme, basil, dried mustard, and paprika.
Ice machines, as it turns out, are prone to microbial contamination. Biofilms can establish themselves, protecting the build-up of bacteria, Food Safety Magazine explains. Listeria can be 1,000 times harder to eliminate if it is protected by one of these biofilms. One report found fecal coliforms in ice served at McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King locations in the U.K.
Have you ever noticed that Sonic’s onion rings are a tad sweet? It’s because the batter is prepared in vats that carry vanilla, according to The Daily Meal. In fact, if you want to make a copycat recipe at home, you’ll want to melt some vanilla ice cream, according to CopyKat’s instructions. (The recipe creator says she worked at Sonic as a teenager and claims that vanilla ice milk is the secret ingredient.)
In a since-deleted TikTok video that showed Taco Bell’s cinnamon twists going into the fryer, it looked like rotini pasta was being deep-fried. “While our Cinnamon Twists may have the shape of rotini, you won’t get very far frying traditional pasta at home,” Taco Bell told Delish. “The twists are a mixture of wheat flour, yellow cornmeal, rice flour, and salt.”
Your fast-food burger probably doesn’t look as good IRL as it did in the commercials. Fast-food chains will put fake grill marks on burgers as a way to convince you that your meal was specially prepared rather than mass-produced.
When it comes to burger battles, McDonald’s and Burger King are known rivals. But, we’ll let you in on a little known secret: OSI is a private company that’s one of McDonald’s biggest meat suppliers, having provided Micky D’s with meat for more than five decades. The company makes McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and burgers. The Illinois-based company recently started supplying plant-based meat to Burger King. Crazy, right?
Do any of these fast food secrets surprise you?
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