These fast-food chains have dropped menu items this year — here's why

Key Points
  • Taco Bell, McDonald's, El Pollo Loco and Jack in the Box have all cut menu items this year.
  • Limited-time items from fast-food chains that become permanent menu items can slow down service.
  • Restaurants usually cut items that are unpopular and less profitable.
Guest experience leader Lusine Zakharyan explains the self-service kiosks inside a McDonald's.
Lucas Oleniuk | Toronto Star | Getty Images

On Thursday, Taco Bell customers had to say "adios" to some menu items.

The Mexican-inspired chain joins several other fast-food companies scaling back their menus in 2019.

In recent years, as the fast-food industry has struggled to increase customer traffic, some chains have turned to buzzy limited-time offers to get attention. A popular limited-time item, like Taco Bell's Mountain Dew Baja Blast drink more than decade ago, can become a permanent addition to the menu.

But if a restaurant adds too many, the elongated menu can overwhelm customers, slow down the kitchen and lead to longer drive-thru lines.

"A guest gets line resistance when someone is behind them, and they have to make a quick decision. In the drive-thru, it is the same thing where, not that they are honking, but they are honking in your head," said Gregg Rapp, a menu engineering consultant.

The general rule of thumb is to have seven or less menu items under each category, Rapp said.

When it comes to deciding what items to remove, menu engineers start by getting rid of the menu items that are unpopular and less profitable.

Even though removed items are usually not bestsellers, Rapp said that there will always be someone who complains about the changed menu. But there's a simple trick to waylay angry customers.

"What we typically do is keep it in the kitchen for 60 days or so, so we'll have it available, but then the next time the person comes in, they'll have forgotten about it," he said.

Taco Bell

Doritos Locos tacos are arranged for a photograph at a Taco Bell restaurant, a unit of Yum! Brands Inc.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Yum Brands chain's menu has a new look. Along with updated combo options, Taco Bell is also removing nine items, including the Cool Ranch and Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos, the Beef Mini Quesadilla and chips and salsa.

The new menu will also highlight bestsellers like the Quesaritos or the Chalupa.


Source: McDonald's

In the spring, McDonald's announced a series of changes to its menus as part of a larger strategy to speed up drive-thru times. The Golden Arches has also been trying to focus on its core menu items, like the Quarter Pounder or the Big Mac, which still see strong U.S. sales.

Its late-night menu, which is available from midnight to 5 a.m. at participating locations, no longer includes items like the Filet-O-Fish or buttermilk chicken tenders. The burger chain also nixed its line of premium burgers and told franchisees that they could scale back their all-day breakfast offerings.

McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook told analysts on the company's second quarter earnings call that drive-thru service times had been trending in the wrong direction for the last three or four years.

Aside from cutting menu items, McDonald's has also been investing in technology and diagnostic tools to speed up the drive-thru lane. In June, U.S. drive-thru times dropped by 15 seconds.

Jack in the Box

People pass in front of a Jack in the Box restaurant in Laguna Beach, California.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Jack in the Box tested cutting low-volume menu items and redundant SKUs at roughly 180 company and franchise stores earlier this year. As a result, service times sped up without hurting sales.

"We've been our own worst enemy when it comes to speed of service, as the breadth of our ever-changing menu has added complexity and prep times in our kitchen," CEO Leonard Comma said on the company's second quarter earnings call.

The chain, which sells burgers, tacos and egg rolls, began rolling out those changes across its entire system in July as part of a plan to cut service times by one minute by the end of 2021. Items that got the ax include its Monster Tacos, which has already been discontinued once before.

Jack in the Box has turned inward to fix its business after concluding a strategic review in May and deciding against a sale of the company.

El Pollo Loco

An El Pollo Loco restaurant in Lake Forest, California
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

El Pollo Loco said in May that it had reduced its menu by 20% across all of its stores. The Mexican chicken chain discontinued items like the Mexican Cobb Salad, Chicken Fajita Burrito and Chicken Fajita Quesadilla.

"Scaling back our menu by almost 20% enabled us to be more efficient in the kitchen, and to focus on providing great food and service," CEO Bernard Acoca said in a statement.

Like Jack in the Box, El Pollo Loco executives said that the company did not see transactions fall as a result of the menu simplication.

Why Dunkin' is not only about drip coffee anymore
Dunkin' vs. Starbucks in the coffee wars