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Consumers take to mystery of hidden menu

May 7, 2013 Updated: May 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm
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In the subrosa world of menus, the proper turn of phrase at a fast-food counter can earn the initiate some serious bonus calories.

'If you ever ate at In-N-Out and experienced 'animal style,' you know what I mean, ' said Richard Keys, a chef and managing partner at Food and Drink Resources, a food industry consulting and marketing company based in Denver. 'In-N-Out is kind of the king of the hidden menu. '

A gratuitous example of overcondimenting, with a slathering of pickles, extra spread and grilled onions in addition to any regular toppings, animal style burgers and fries at In-N-Out are far from the regional chain's or the industry's greatest caloric crime kept, ostensibly, on the down low.

Sonic's 'extreme tots ' - tater tots topped with chili, cheese, ranch dressing, jalape?s and onions - aren't on the menu, but you only need ask for them. Ditto, for Chipotle's fabled 1,500-calorie 'quesarito, ' a burrito wrapped in a quesadilla, which has two Facebook pages but no home on the restaurant's menu. A similar secret menu offering at Burger King, the 'suicide burger, ' is a four-patty beef tower topped with cheese, bacon and sauce.

Though forged in the brick-fired ovens of gluttony, in recent years the hidden menu concept has been embraced by more fast-food and fast-casual restaurants as a way to satisfy a growing audience of healthy, sometimes finicky, diners.

'The gimmick really started with probably the most unhealthy combinations of food, ' Keys said. The practice has evolved to 'serve as a great platform for restaurant brands to address health or dietary restrictions. '

Consumers looking for low-carb or paleo diet options, smaller serving sizes or healthier versions of old staples shouldn't be discouraged if their choice doesn't show up among an establishment's advertised offerings. Most restaurants with hidden menus promote them online. Even if they don't, a simple online search - or cashier/server query - will do the trick.

The unlisted 'petite burger ' at Red Robin has about half the calories of the standard version. Starbucks sells a short hot coffee, though you won't find it on the menu board. And at Panera Bread, a new not-so-hidden menu of 'power meals ' seeks to satisfy dieting diners, those with special food needs, as well as those with smartphones and a fondness for viral marketing.

'It was something fun to do with our customers, ' said Missy Robinson, senior marketing director at Panera Bread of Colorado. The national chain rolled out a new, hidden 'power ' menu - with great fanfare - in February. The menu includes low-fat, low-carb, high-protein meals and breakfasts, made with egg whites and lean meats. Options come without calorie-squandering sides such as fries, chips or bread.

'A lot of people make resolutions and are trying to incorporate a healthy lifestyle. It's getting people talking, ' Robinson said. The offerings 'are one step healthier (and have) a really low calorie count. '

A list of available hidden items under 360 calories can be found on Panera's website, along with nutritional information. The website also features a nutritional calculator.

So far, the alternate menu has been a hit for Panera, Robinson said.

'I think it kind of gives them (diners) an experience, so they're not just looking at the menu and ordering, ' Robinson said. 'It gives them an opportunity to look at what they were ordering and maybe customize that or order something entirely new. '

On the business end, hidden menus are a safe way for restaurants to test-market less popular, trendy or risky (read: healthy) items on the cheap, relatively speaking.

'When you're working off a menu board, that real estate is very expensive, ' Keys said.

Secret menus also can help preserve a diner's dietary privacy - and save time.

'In some respects, people don't want to advertise the fact that they're ordering these dietary restrictive meals, ' Keys said. Customers can submit a few-word order - say, Power Breakfast Egg Bowl with Steak - 'instead of saying 'I want this, add this and hold that,' which probably is not so cool, especially when there are 20 people queuing up behind you waiting for you to explain what you need. '

From a sales standpoint, the ploy plays to the cultural, culinary and consumer weaknesses at our core. We like secrets, when we're in the know; we each like to feel our individual personality is being catered to; and, we like to eat.

'Consumers want the power of choice. I think it makes them feel special, ' Keys said. America is, increasingly, a nation of picky eaters, and 'that's the other reason why these hidden menus are becoming more popular. '

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