Pooja Lal
Pooja is an Analyst for US Foodservice and Mintel Menu Insights. She previously worked in Sales and Consumer Insights within CPG companies on both the Retail and Foodservice segments of the business.

“Menu hacking,” also known as a “secret menu,” is when a diner customizes their meal by combining different menu items based on personal preferences. The idea of menu hacking allows consumers to take a made-to-order approach and pair menu items with other dishes and ingredients on the menu. According to research from Mintel Menu Insights, “made to order” as a menu item claim grew 71% from Q3 2018-Q3 2021, demonstrating the growing influence of customization on US menus.

The idea of menu hacking has been around for decades but has recently gained increased popularity through the power of sharing on social media platforms. In February 2022, Denny’s collaborated with high-profile TikTok stars to unveil its latest brand campaign that focuses on menu hacking. To date, TikTok has almost 30 million views associated with the hashtag “#menuhacks.” Menu hacking has allowed consumers to connect worldwide and share their creations over social media. According to forthcoming Mintel research on restaurant marketing strategies, two in five consumers use social media to discover new restaurants. It is becoming more common for influencers to encourage consumers to be more adventurous in their away-from-home dining experiences.

Denny’s Facebook Post, Feb. 2022

Source: Pathmatics [2/24/2022], as of 4/2/2022

McDonald’s gained traction in the social media spotlight in the summer of 2021. The hashtag #koreanicecream was a viral trend that resonated with its international influence and yet simplistic approach. The trend was most popular with McDonald’s customers as they opted to mix their ice cream from their vanilla soft-serve cone with an iced black coffee. The hashtag to date has over 9.1M views on TikTok.

McDonald’s #koreanicecream menu hack video, July 2022

Source: TikTok

Hacking operational issues

As operators continue to face supply chain shortages and price increases due to widespread inflation, menu hacking can also allow operators to work with on-hand ingredients and stay innovative without the resulting strain on food costs and labor. Additionally, popular menu hacks inspired by social media have the potential to become permanent menu items. In January 2022, McDonald’s launched its Menu Hacks menu for a limited time. Fans are encouraged to share their favorite builds on social media and tag @McDonalds with the hashtag #McDonaldsHacks. In March 2022, Chipotle emailed its loyalty program members a promotion to earn 100 extra rewards points for ordering chips and salsa, guacamole or queso in honor of National Chip & Dip Day. The brand included menu hacking ideas for mixing its popular dip options.

McDonald’s Menu Hacks Menu, Jan. 2022

Source: McDonald’s

Chipotle e-mail, “Today, dip into 100 extra points,” March 2022

Source: Mintel ePerformance/eDatasource as of 4/1/2022

Menu hacking is also a great way to meet the changing needs of consumers and their dietary needs. Whether it is changing a higher-calorie bun for lettuce or adding an egg for extra protein, consumers are interested in exploring personalization catered to their needs. According to Mintel Menu Insights research, the menu item claim “gluten-free” grew 14% from Q3 2018- Q3 2021 on US menus. For some operators, it could be beneficial to offer consumers ways to create their definition of a balanced meal that could feature indulgence paired with healthier ingredient options. Providing customizable options at consumers’ fingertips can enable operators to gain new and repeat customers.

Carl’s Junior Menu Hack, December 2021

Source: Instagram

What we think

According to Mintel research on the future of foodservice, over a quarter of Americans say it is important that operators offer “unique experiences” when dining out in 2022. There will be continued room for exploration and adaptation when consumers opt to try new foods and hack the menu. Operators need to be nimble and creative with their existing menu by leveraging social media inspiration. Social media will continue to drive new menu trends, especially among digitally savvy Gen Z and Millennials. Maintaining an engaging social media presence, incorporating trending flavors and ingredients, and serving aesthetically pleasing dishes will keep restaurant consumers engaged and excited.