But as with shrinking cereal boxes and lighter bags of potato chips, so goes the fast food industry. Burger King replaced the dollar Whopper with a dollar Whopper Jr. McDonald’s upped the price of the Big ‘N Tasty and began pushing the $1 double cheeseburger. Taco Bell bumped the Beef Combo Burrito up from 89 cents to 99 cents to $1.29 and now, on a recent visit, an astounding $1.69. Back at McDonald’s, even the aforementioned double cheeseburger was apparently too costly to offer at a dollar as last fall it was replaced with the McDouble, the exact same thing, only with one slice of cheese instead of two.
For years I have been watching the price of large fountain drinks drift teasingly toward the $2 mark. It’s sort of a barometer for overall food prices the way the Big Mac index is a measure of exchange rates. There seems to be sort of psychological barrier as very few chains successfully push even their mega bucket-sized drinks above $1.99. For example, looking back at an old version of this site from way back in 2002, a large fountain drink at McDonald’s was $1.59. Now it’s $1.79. Of course, prices vary and I don’t have portion size data, but the barrier is apparent. That’s a 12.5% increase. Meanwhile, the regular cheeseburger went from .69 to .99, a 43% jump in the same period. And the same is true at other chains:
|Item||2002 Price||2009 Price||% Change|
|Burger King Large Drink||1.29||1.79||39%|
|Burger King Cheeseburger||.49 (promo)||.89||81%|
|Taco Bell Large Drink||1.39||1.89||36%|
|Taco Bell Chicken Soft Taco*||1.29||1.89||47%|
* Rebranded as Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco
Despite the fact that fountain drinks are still a huge money maker for restaurants, how were the chains able to keep even these lower costs under control? With the introduction of self-service drink dispensing. Yes, the human cost in the time it takes an employee to fill your drink (when they could be taking the next order) caused chains to get creative.
So this begs the question: Could build-your-own-burger toppings bars be next? What about scoop-your-own-fries? Ok, maybe a bit far fetched. But barring any more creative cost cutting measures it is all but inevitable that the value menu will become “great items for under $1.25.” And from there, the sky’s the limit.