Psst. Wanna know what your favorite fast-food joing will secretly sell you - that's not on the menu?
Of course you do - and so do millions of others who are hungry to be in-the-know. That's why "secret menus" - stuff you can order that's not posted on menu boards - are picking up steam as more restaurants are linked to the trend, including In-N-Out Burger, Taco Bell, McDonald's and, most recently, Panera Bread.
Panera has rather quietly started to sell Power Bowls at breakfast, lunch and dinner filled with things such as chicken, spinach and hummus - never mind that they're not on the menu board. Panera mostly spreads the word via social media.
"Secret menus allow us to speak to one audience without the investment and infrastructure of putting an item on the menu," says Ron Shaich, founder of Panera. In this case, he says, the latest hidden menu is aimed at Panera fans who can't eat or don't want to eat the chain's most basic product: bread. All six of these items are bread-less.
Beyond that, Shaich says of secret menus, "They've very cool."
Ah, yes, the coolness quotient. "It's there to build an elevated level of affinity to a select few," says restaurant PR guru Derek Farley. But, he says, there can be a downside. "You may build buzz about your brand," he says, "but I'd rather sell something that appeals to a lot than a few."
Among other secret menu offerings:
• "Protein Burger" at In-N-Out: First things first: In-N-Out doesn't have a real "secret menu," says Carl Van Fleet, vice president of planning and development. But it does have a not-so-secret menu, he says, that's not posted on store menu boards but is posted on the chain's website.
Among those items: the Protein Burger that is two cheeseburger patties wrapped in lettuce - but no bun. "We never set out to create or pioneer a secret menu," says Van Fleet. "Some of the names for these variations just stuck."
• "Mc10:35" at McDonald's. While McDonald's insists it doesn't have a secret menu, social media insists otherwise. And the best-selling "secret" item can only be purchased when McDonald's is changing grill shifts from breakfast to lunch. That's when some folks like to concoct the Mc10:35 (named after the approximate time of the shift change). The combo is the inside of a McDouble burger, minus the bun (from lunch), plopped inside an Egg McMuffin (from breakfast).
"Customers have come up with their own McDonald's items," says spokeswoman Danya Proud. But will the restaurants sell them that way? "That's decided on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis."
• "Shell Game" at Taco Bell. With the rollout of Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos, some consumers now are asking for the Doritos shells in place of regular taco shells inside the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, says spokesman Rob Poetsch.