Not every item that can be ordered appears on a menu board. Image source: McDonald's.
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In some ways, secret menus have become less secret over the last few years.
More consumers know what they are and some chains, like In-N-Out Burger, have embraced them. Basically, a secret menu consists of items that can be ordered but that do not appear on the normal menu board.
That does not mean you can order prime rib at a Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX). In general, the non-public items involve ingredients that are used by the chain in combinations other than the intended ones. At the coffee chain, that means using syrups, toppings, and extras to create new flavors.
In many cases, the secret menu items can be ordered and the person behind the counter will know what you want. Order a Birthday Cake Frappuccino, for example, and many baristas will know what you want as that item has become a commonly ordered secret item. Request a Stormtrooper Frappuccino, however, and you had best be prepared to lay out the ingredients to the person making the drink.
There's no guarantee that a McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) or Restaurant Brands International's (NYSE: QSR) Burger King will honor an off-menu request, but both chains have well-established secret menus. Here's what people in the know are ordering and exactly what those non-menu items entail.
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What's on McDonald's secret menu?
McDonald's compared to most chains has a very limited secret menu, with two main items that people in the know can choose from, according to Eater.com.
There's the "Land, Air, and Sea Burger," which features all the ingredients of a Big Mac, a McChicken, and a Filet-O-Fish served together in one big sandwich. The chain also has the be-careful-how-you-state-your-order McGangBang, a McChicken sandwiched inside a double cheeseburger.
Some order takers will know these by name, but most will let you order them as "grill orders" if you specify the ingredients. A grill order is any menu item not ordered exactly per normal specifications, which could mean asking for extra pickles or, in this case, laying out the ingredients for the Land, Sea, and Air Burger.
Of course, these are not the only secret menu items at McDonald's, only the most famous. HacktheMenu has a list of lesser-known McSecrets like the Monster Mac and the McCrepe that some stores may be willing to make you.
What's on Burger King's secret menu?
Once a chain puts Man 'n Cheetos on its actual menu, it's hard to think that there is anything it won't do. The chain has a very involved secret menu, according to Secretmenus.com. Just like its rival, these are all combinations of existing ingredients combined to form something new. Some favorites include the Burger King BLT, which is a Whopper with bacon added as a topping, and the Chicken Club, a traditional chicken sandwich withbacon, tomato, and cheese added.
Another popular secret menu choice has been dubbed "Frings" by its fans. This is simply a half order of French fries mixed with a half order of onion rings. In addition, Burger King patrons can order the Rodeo Burger -- a onetime regular menu item that was dropped -- by asking for barbecue sauce and onion rings on a regular hamburger.
And if you like Burger King but hate yourself, you can ask for the Suicide Burger -- a monstrosity featuring four beef patties, four slices of cheese, bacon, and special sauce served between two sesame seed buns.
Why do secret menus matter?
Secret menus can build loyalty by making some customers feel in the know. It's a kind of secret club where those not in aren't hurt by it, because they do not even know it exists.
Neither Burger King nor McDonald's has done a particularly good job of leveraging its secret menu. Starbucks has been a leader in this area, not only embracing the idea of letting consumers concoct their own drinks but even moving a few of them over to the actual menu.
The two leading burger chains have not embraced the trend, instead choosing to leave their secret menus as something that only a relative few know about. That's true of staff as well as consumers making it much harder to order a Land, Air, and Sea Burger or a Rodeo Burger than it needs to be.
Secret menus can be a way to build stronger relationships with your best customers. In these cases, both chains are mostly letting that opportunity slip by.
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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He has a VHS tape that details Grimace's origin story. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.