Innovation and fast food don't seem like logical bedfellows. How much breakthrough thinking is required to throw together a basic cheeseburger? Not much. But if a restaurant wants to go beyond the burger and introduce a food that employees can make easily and that customers crave, innovation is vitally important.
McDonald's is the prime example. What started in 1955 as a single store with a modest menu of burgers, fries and shakes became the leading global foodservice retailer, with more than 31,000 local restaurants serving 58 million people in more than 118 countries each day [source: McDonald's]. At the heart of this massive growth is one thing: a diverse menu that now boasts nearly 165 items. While some products won't ever make it into a fast-food hall of fame, others are as American as baseball and Chevrolet. McDonald's has an uncanny knack for understanding its customers and applying that knowledge to create sandwiches, sides and salads that customers buy (and buy again) millions of times a year.
Knowing those numbers with great certainty is difficult because McDonald's doesn't release sales figures for individual menu items. You can make some educated guesses, however, using available market research and a little common sense. We'll use both of those sources as we count down 10 of the most popular items ordered by McDonald's customers all over the world.
The first item on our list -- the McGriddles breakfast sandwich -- certainly must have sounded risky when it was first conceived. As we're about to see, it's a gamble that paid off.
McGriddles Breakfast Sandwich
Hotcakes with sausage have always been popular with McDonald's customers -- at least those seated at a table. Unfortunately, they represent a far greater challenge for drive-through customers, who make up about 65 percent of the company's business [source:Greenspan].
In 2000, McDonald's executives issued a challenge to corporate staff, franchisees and suppliers: develop a breakfast product that delivers the great taste of pancakes, maple syrup and sausage, but doesn't leave behind a sticky mess. One vendor, San-Antonio-based C.H. Guenther, devised a way to suspend maple flavoring in a pancake while it was being baked. Take two of these syrup-laced concoctions, emboss them with golden arches, wrap them around a piece of sausage or sausage and egg, and you've got a revolutionary product -- the McGriddles sandwich.
As it does with most new products, McDonald's rolled out McGriddles throughout 2001 in a small test market consisting of 400 restaurants in Wisconsin, Illinois and Mississippi and then in Arkansas, Southern California and Tennessee. They were introduced nationwide in 2003 and became an instant hit, accounting for about 40 percent of same-store sales growth in their first 12 months on the menu [source: Wall Street Journal].
Up next: double-double, cheese-cheese, burger-burger, please.
A menu item that gains popularity with customers almost always gains popularity with McDonald's investors. And no menu item has been more popular with investors than the double cheeseburger. How could something so pedestrian, especially when compared to the Big Mac, become so important to shareholders? Well, in January 2003, McDonald's reported its first quarterly loss in 38 years. A few months earlier, the company introduced its Dollar Menu, a value-priced selection of items anchored by the double cheeseburger. No one knew it then, but that simple sandwich, the one made with two burgers and two slices of cheese, would turn the company around. It became the most ordered item, and as its popularity grew, the Dollar Menu reshaped McDonald's fortunes, stimulating 36 consecutive months of sales growth at stores open at least a year [source: Warner].
Of course, the mighty always fall, and the McDonald's double cheeseburger is no exception. In January 2009, as the price of processed American cheese increased by almost a dollar a pound, the company decided it could no longer sell its popular burger for a dollar. In most stores, the double cheeseburger now costs $1.19, and in its place on the Dollar Menu resides a new product, the McDouble burger, which features two beef patties, but only one slice of cheese. Removing a single slice of American cheese will save about 6 cents per burger and boost cash flow per restaurant by an estimated $15,000 per year [source:Ross]. How the McDouble will fare with customers remains to be seen.
How about some leafy greens to go with that burger?
OK, before you fall over laughing -- salads on a McDonald's most-popular list? -- consider the history of the company's premium salad menu, which includes a Southwest salad, a bacon ranch salad and a Caesar salad. First, McDonald's decided to up the ante on quality. Instead of starting with iceberg lettuce, meal planners and developers decided on a blend of 16 lettuces. When these higher-quality salads hit the market in 2003, consumers interested in healthier fare responded enthusiastically. The fast-food chain has moved more than 500 million premium salads since 2003, equating to more than 900 million servings of fruits and vegetables [source:Greenspan].
Perhaps more important, McDonald's sells its salads at a premium. A typical salad retails for $4.20 on average. Compare that to a Big Mac, which sells for $2.89. Since the company added salads to the menu, average check totals have increased by 5 percent. On a $10 order, that's only 50 cents. But when you multiply that by 31,000 restaurants and millions of customers around the world, even a tiny margin adds up. Such scale also explains why McDonald's has become the world's single biggest seller of salads in just a couple of years [source: Wallop].
Up next: What kind of sauce would you like with those?
Chicken McNuggets and Chicken Select Strips
In the late 1970s, McDonald's was known as the King of Burgers. But a key to survival, the company knew, was getting a successful chicken product on its menu. To help lead the charge, Ray Kroc hired Rene Arend in 1976, a European chef who refined his culinary magic at the Whitehall Hotel in Chicago. One of Arend's early projects was "onion nuggets" -- chunks of battered, deep-fried onions. They flopped completely, but their underlying concept inspired the company to create a similar product made out of chicken.
Years of experiments, involving McDonald's product development staff and outside suppliers produced Chicken McNuggets, which were tested in 1980 and fully introduced nationally by 1983. By 1986, the bite-sized chicken pieces accounted for 7.5 percent of McDonald's domestic sales, making McNuggets one of the most successful product launches in fast-food history [source: Love].
Today, McDonald's continues to evolve its chicken-based menu. Chicken McNuggets, now made with all white-meat chicken breast, sit next to Chicken Select Strips, which made their first appearance in 2002. By 2003, McDonald's was responsible for 79 percent of the growth in the chicken strips category within the fast-food sector. By 2004, the company had served more than 65 million pounds (29 million kilograms) of Chicken Selects to customers nationwide [source: QSR Magazine]. Not too shabby for a restaurant famous for its burgers and its -- apples?
Apple Dippers and Baked Apple Pie
Benjamin Franklin once said, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." If that's true, then McDonald's has done its share over the years to keep its customers away from physicians. First came the deep-fried apple pie, which was meant to take customers back to the days of a homemade pie cooling on the windowsill. In 1992, after extensive consumer testing, the company phased out the fried apple pie and replaced it with a baked version.
Of course, the ingredients of a McDonald's apple pie include more than apples. You'll also find high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, shortening and caramel color. To appeal to consumers looking for a healthier alternative, the company launched its Apple Dippers product in 2004. Apple Dippers are just sliced apples -- either cameo or pink lady varieties, sealed within a plastic bag and bathed with calcium ascorbate to maintain freshness and color. Low-fat caramel dip comes on the side.
Apple Dippers were a key component of a "Lifestyles Platform" McDonald's introduced in 2004. As such, the dessert became a new Happy Meal option, along with new beverage choices including 100 percent pure apple juice, as well as white and chocolate 1 percent milk. McDonald's sells more than 35 million pounds (nearly 16 million kilograms) of apples annually just through Apple Dippers [source: QSR Magazine]. Throw in apple juice and baked apple pies, and it's easy to see why the company buys more apples than any restaurant chain in the United States [source: Younge].
It's hard to believe in our bustling world that as late as the 1970s, fast-food restaurants opened at 11 a.m., closed at midnight and limited their menus to lunch and dinner items. That all changed in 1971, when McDonald's franchisee Herb Peterson set out to make an eggs Benedict sandwich. Peterson started with an English muffin, then layered on a slice of grilled Canadian bacon, a poached egg and a slice of cheese. The poached egg presented a production problem until Peterson devised a new implement -- a cluster of six Teflon-coated rings -- that could cook several eggs quickly. The final problem was the name, which Patty Turner, wife of McDonald's President Fred Turner, thought up one night over dinner [source: Love].
By 1976, the Egg McMuffin was selling like, well, hotcakes. And speaking of hotcakes, McDonald's added them, along with sausage and scrambled eggs, to strengthen its breakfast menu. Its restaurants also extended their hours, opening at 7 a.m. -- much earlier than most other fast-food chains -- and gaining another four hours of brisk sales. Competitors would not introduce breakfast items for almost another 10 years. By that time, McDonald's had cornered the market. To this day, breakfast accounts for 15 percent of McDonald's sales [source: McDonald's annual report].
We'll cover how kids factor into those sales next.
McDonald's was on a roll in the early 1970s. The Big Mac was already a huge hit when the company introduced the Quarter Pounder and Quarter Pounder with Cheese in 1973. Next came the Egg McMuffin, launched officially in 1975. Why not take that momentum and target an untapped market -- kids? And why not do it with a special package that included a meal and a toy?
The solution was the Happy Meal, which made its debut at a St. Louis restaurant in 1979. It was relatively simple back then: a circus-themed cardboard box containing a hamburger, fries and unpretentious toys, such as a McDoodler stencil, a puzzle book, a McWrist wallet, an ID bracelet and McDonaldland character erasers. Over time, the toys became a bit fancier and featured tie-ins with brands, such as Barbie and Hot Wheels, as well as major motion pictures. The food selection also expanded to include Chicken McNuggets and Apple Dippers. Maybe that's why a recent Zagat survey named McDonald's the most child-friendly fast-food chain.
Whether kids come for the food or the toys, Happy Meals are a giant success. More than 3.6 billion meals have been sold since their inception [source: Nation's Restaurant News]. That means about 20 percent of all meals sold at McDonald's are Happy Meals [source: Spurlock].
A Snack Wrap is modestly simple: warm crispy or grilled white-breast chicken meat, cheddar jack cheese, lettuce and ranch sauce, all wrapped in a flour tortilla. The innovation isn't so much in the wrap itself, but in the marketing acumen that spawned it.
Historically, McDonald's has focused on serving portions that are fit for a meal. In 2006, the company asked itself, "What about snacking?" To get at this untapped market, McDonald's introduced its chicken Snack Wrap, which carries a low price point ($1.29) and can easily be consumed with one hand. Other snack items include the Fruit & Walnut Salad, Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait and Apple Dippers, but those items may be too light for someone looking for a smaller meal.
Perhaps that's why the Snack Wrap has been a huge hit, especially with younger customers. According to CREST research data, young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are three times more likely to choose McDonald's for an in-between meal than any other quick-service restaurant. And if the numbers are any indication, they are clearly ordering Snack Wraps once they get there. In 2007 alone, the company sold 540 million of the tortilla-wrapped mini-meals [source: McDonald's 2007 annual report].
Nothing is more synonymous with McDonald's than the Big Mac -- the multilayered sandwich that towers over all other fast-food competitors. Jim Delligatti, a McDonald's franchise owner in Uniontown, Pa., invented the now-iconic burger and began selling it at his store in 1968 for 45 cents [source: Alfano]. It was so popular that McDonald's decided to sell the sandwich nationally. The rest is history.
By some estimates, McDonald's sells 550 million Big Macs each year in the United States alone [source: Alfano]. But the sandwich has global popularity. It is available in more than 100 countries and is consumed 900 million times a year around the world [source: Big Mac Museum].
One important factor behind the success of the Big Mac has been advertising. Needham Harper & Steers, a New York-based advertising agency, developed the famous "Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun" Big Mac jingle in 1974. The agency had already created the company's "You deserve a break today" campaign in 1971, one of Ad Age's top 100 advertising campaigns of all time, so maybe it was too much to hope for another lightning strike. But strike it did. The Big Mac jingle became a cultural phenomenon and remains imprinted on our collective consciousness today.
Now for No. 1. We bet you can guess what it is, if you didn't already cheat and look.
Food innovation is essential to the future of McDonald's, yet classic menu favorites still account for more than 75 percent of the company's sales around the world [source: McDonald's 2007 annual report]. The McDonald's french fry, which can trace its heritage all the way back to the original McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif., that introduced french fries in 1949, is the most classic menu item of them all. In 1967, Idaho-based Simplot Company, which developed frozen potato products, struck a deal with McDonald's to provide frozen french fries to the expanding fast-food chain. Today, every fry is frozen and then cooked on-site in oil.
The deep-fried potatoes got a bad rap in the 1980s when the public became concerned about the beef tallow, a medium rich in cholesterol, used to cook them. Since 1990, McDonald's has been cooking its fries in vegetable oil, and in 2008, switched to zero-trans-fat cooking oil. Despite these changes, which altered their trademark taste, McDonald's french fries remain eternally popular with our fast-food nation. The restaurant chain serves approximately 9 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of fries a day [source: McDonald's]. And in a 2007 Zagat survey, McDonald's fries acquired 63 percent of the vote, compared to just 10 percent each for runners-up Burger King and Wendy's.
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