Fast food's new mantra: What's old is new

How McDonald's makes its menu
How McDonald's makes its menu

Arrive for a Big Mac or Whopper. Leave with a serious case of déjà vu.

For some diners, recent menu additions at fast-food giants Burger King and McDonald's are sparking a trip down memory lane. The two chains are embracing a "what's old is new" menu strategy, and selling items that were removed years ago to boost sales. In the process, they hope to profit from consumer nostalgia.

This month, McDonald's brought former menu mainstay Chicken Selects back by "popular demand" as a limited time offer, wrote spokeswoman Lisa McComb in an email. It originally shelved the strips of premium white meat strips in 2013. During the summer, it also brought back the discontinued McNugget hot mustard sauce in select markets.

Chicken Select Tenders at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Meanwhile, rival Burger King in December dug deep into company archives to resurrect the Yumbo, a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich on a hoagie bun last seen on the menu in 1974. After a two-year hiatus, its Chicken Fries also returned to the menu last August, for a limited time.

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Social media was especially important in the decision to resurrect Burger King's Chicken Fries.

"On some days, we'd get one tweet every forty seconds demanding a Chicken Fries renaissance," wrote Eric Hirschhorn, Burger King CMO, in an email. "We couldn't ignore their emotional pleas, and quite frankly we didn't want to. Chicken Fries returned in August for one reason, and one reason only: pure, unfiltered passion."

Not exactly Mighty Wings

These throw-back menu items are further evidence of heightened competition between the two burger giants, who are already locked in a chicken war fought with weapons made from rock-bottom priced nuggets.

Menu second-acts are considered less risky than engineering a completely new product at a time when competition is fierce, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at market research firm Technomic. Tristano said advertising them as limited-time offerings also sparks some immediacy to visit restaurants—if customers want a shot at ordering an old favorite.

"These would be considered tried and true and products that achieved some level of success," Tristano added.

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Bringing back older items is also easier operationally than launching something totally new.

"If you're bringing back an old product, generally you'll have a lot of creative (for advertising) done, and the supply chain already set up," said John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group. "Often it's a matter of updating it and ensuring they can supply the new tonnage again, and the consumer research has already been done."

These limited-time offers help chains bring "new" product news to the table without adding permanent complexity.

This is especially important for McDonald's, which pared down its menu earlier this year amid criticism it had grown too bloated, causing slowness at the drive-thru.

Although each chain's returning items were not blockbusters—or they would never have left menu boards in the first place—they were not "an utter catastrophe" originally, Gordon pointed out.

"You don't see McDonald's bringing back Mighty Wings," he added, referring to the fast food chain's notable flop.