Creating A Cult Food Classic

How specialty menu items reach phenomena levels

If an item has a “cult following” it means a passionate fanbase is emotionally attached to it. These highly engaged fans can catapult something such as a movie, book, television series – or even food – to mythical status.

While almost every restaurant chain has at least one “classic” menu item that defines their brand, what has eluded many is an item that gains “cult classic” status.

So what’s the difference between a classic and a cult classic menu item?

A classic is something that has permeated the culture and that most people are aware of or have experienced. In the food industry, a classic is often a signature offering like the Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse or Cheddar Biscuits at Red Lobster. These items are always available and always popular.

Alternatively, a cult classic usually has a smaller, enthusiastic, base of supporters who have emotional attachment to the item or experience and often identify themselves as part of a distinct community. Their devotion can cross over into other aspects of their life. For instance, in 2015 a St. Louis teenager had her senior portraits taken at her favorite Taco Bell, and in January of this year People magazine did an online spread featuring popular fast-food apparel because fans literally want to wear their favorite foods on their sleeve.

And while there are multiple elements that go into making a cult classic menu item, the one thing they have in common is scarcity. Whether it’s scarcity in volume (Dominique Ansel’s flagship bakery in New York City has historically limited the number of available cronuts to 350 per day); scarcity in location (In-N-Out Burger and its famous Double-Double is only available in a few western states); or seasonal scarcity (Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is only available in the fall and winter) limiting the item in some way compels people to partake when they have the opportunity. The scarcity of the experience is part of what makes it special.

The Scarcity Principle

In economics the scarcity principle is a theory which relates to supply and demand. In essence, it says limited supply combined with high demand yields greater value. It’s also a theory used in psychology, and psychologists have documented that when something is perceived to be scarce, people are more anxious to have it.
As mentioned, while creating a sense of urgency is often an important aspect in creating a menu cult classic, it’s not the only thing, the item also has to be crave-worthy and unique. Let’s break down the history of a few cult food items so you can see how this dynamic can happen.

High Cult Food Probability

Scarcity

Limited availability of a commodity, which may be in demand in the market.

Crave Worthy

An intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing.

Unique

Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

Case Study: Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte

The creation of a cult food sometimes happens unexpectedly. One of the most recognizable and successful cult food items is Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. Developed in 2003 as one of several winter limited time offerings (LTOs), during taste tests it only received a moderate rating compared to other beverages that were sampled. However, at the time there wasn’t anything on the market with those flavors (i.e. unique) and the development team strongly believed in it, so they continued to experiment with the flavor profile.

When it rolled out in two test markets, sales were so strong they had to expedite inventory ahead of schedule to keep up with demand. Starbucks now heralds their Pumpkin Spice Latte as their most popular cyclical beverage of all time with approximately 200 million units sold in the first 12 seasons.

Starbucks’ LTO winter offering also started a worldwide pumpkin spice trend. Now consumers can buy everything from yogurt to beer to pasta sauce in a pumpkin spice variety. Even pets seem to like the taste of pumpkin spice as pet treat manufacturer “Greenies” has developed a limited edition “Pumpkin Spice Flavor” doggie dental chew.

Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is also a social media star, with over 107,000 followers on Twitter (@TheRealPSL). The account behaves like a fickle friend who “goes dark” periodically, then suddenly reappears with a big “I’m back, did you miss me?” type message. This is part of Starbucks’ understanding of the scarcity factor. If you go away for a while, everyone is excited when you return.

Case Study: McDonald's McRib

Another example of “unexpected” cult foods are items that were once on the main menu, then discontinued. Companies usually don’t realize the item has a “cult” following until requests to bring it back start pouring in. This was the case with McDonald’s McRib. It was originally invented in conjunction with Chicken McNuggets at a time when fast food restaurants were just beginning to explore restructured meat (smaller cuts blended together with a binding agent). The demand for McNuggets was so high that poultry processors couldn’t keep up. As a result, many locations frequently ran out of the popular new item. As an appeasement to stores and consumers, the company invented and shipped the McRib (another restructured meat product).

Both of these products were unique in that McDonald’s was known for hamburgers and they were trying out chicken and pork. While McNuggets became a menu “classic” the McRib was destined to become a “cult classic.”

The McRib was part of the regular menu from 1981 to 1985, then retired. Executives felt it had a place, but that there wasn’t enough interest in pork to keep it on the regular menu. Instead it was offered as an LTO in 1986. Then again in 1987. And again in 1988. And again in 1989. And … well you see where this is going. It was pretty much brought back every year for the next two decades and consumers came to rely on its recurring availability.

This is where the McRib slides from unexpected cult food to a carefully planned strategy. In 2005 McDonald’s announced a “Farewell Tour” with a spokesman stating, “our customers will have the last chance to experience the savory taste of the McRib Sandwich and pay tribute to a part of McDonald's 50-year history" before it was to be permanently deleted from the menu. But it was all a marketing ploy, and like the rock star it is, the McRib returned from retirement for additional farewell tours in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Since then the tangy pork sandwich still shows up yearly at locations around the globe. The McRib fanbase has certainly attained cult-like status. With hundreds of Facebook groups and even a website devoted to reported sightings, McRib fans are always on the lookout for the next appearance of this elusive item.

Case Study: Dunkin' Girl Scout CookieTM Coffee

An example of a cult food that was a carefully planned strategy from the beginning is Dunkin’ Donuts recent licensing of Girl Scout Cookie flavors. The LTO flavors were introduced in 2018 and brought back by popular demand in 2019. Per their press release, “Last February, we unveiled three delicious new coffee flavors inspired by your favorite, iconic Girl Scout Cookies®: Thin Mints®, Coconut Caramel, and Peanut Butter Cookie. Our guests absolutely LOVED the new flavors, so much so that we’ve decided to bring them back.” The shake-up for the 2019 launch was to switch out last year’s Peanut Butter Cookie with a Trefoils® shortbread flavor.

Dunkin’ Donuts also encourages franchisees to host local troops at their stores. Inviting them to set up booths and sell Girl Scout Cookies. So they’re piggybacking on an established seasonal offering that is already known to be crave-worthy and that has a dedicated fanbase, and it looks to be a win-win situation for both organizations.

To bring this back around to the original question of how cult foods happen, you can see from these examples that the tenants mentioned earlier are found in each example. Each is scarce, crave-worthy, and unique in some way.
  Security Crave-Worthy Unique
Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte Seasonal only. Fall beverage menu. Irresistible flavor and smell. High draw rate score (Datassential). Starbucks was the first to identify and offer this flavor.
McDonald's McRib Sandwich Former regular menu item frequently brought back as LTO. Nostalgic favorite. McDonald's most popular LTO. Barbecue-style pork on a menu dominated by beef burgers.
Dunkin' Donuts Girl Scout Cookie Coffee LTO that coincides with yearly Girl Scout Cookie sales season. Girl Scouts have been selling iconic cookies for over 100 years. Official Girl Scout licensed vendor for coffee draws upon a large community of this widely recognized youth organization.

Other Cult Food Classics

  • Taco Bell Cheesarito

    Part of Taco Bell’s original menu, the Cheesarito was discontinued but can still be ordered as a “secret menu” item since all the ingredients (cheese, scallions, and taco sauce in a soft tortilla) are still on hand.

  • Burger King Yumbo

    Removed from the menu in 1974, the hot ham and cheese sandwich was reintroduced as a limited time item in 2014. Social media around the LTO focused on 70s nostalgia.

  • Wendy’s Premium Fish Fillet

    This fan-favorite returns each year in time for Lent. It seems to have been called the Premium Fish Fillet, North Pacific Cod Sandwich, and Premium Cod Fillet Sandwich over the years. Whatever Wendy’s calls it, consumers call it delicious and their demand keeps bringing it back.

  • White Castle Turkey Sliders and Sweet Potato Fries

    White Castle has offered Thanksgiving-inspired seasonal menu items each year since 2016.

  • KFC Double Down

    The Double Down launched in 2010 with an April Fool’s Day press release that many thought was a joke. Two fried chicken breast “buns” hold the bacon, cheese, and Colonel’s Sauce. The promotion included donating ‘unneeded’ sandwich bread to food banks, but this bit of altruism didn’t stop the item from being lampooned by The Colbert Report. It has returned a number of times in North America, Europe, Asia and other continents.

  • KFC Double Down

    The Double Down launched in 2010 with an April Fool’s Day press release that many thought was a joke. Two fried chicken breast “buns” hold the bacon, cheese, and Colonel’s Sauce. The promotion included donating ‘unneeded’ sandwich bread to food banks, but this bit of altruism didn’t stop the item from being lampooned by The Colbert Report. It has returned a number of times in North America, Europe, Asia and other continents.

  • Burger King Cini Minis

    These bite-size gooey cinnamon rolls debuted in 1998 as a breakfast item. In late 2018 they were brought back under the “sweets” category as a holiday LTO, but as of this writing, they are still on the menu.

  • Chick-fil-A Peach Milkshake

    This summertime-only menu item debuts each year when peaches are at their peak. Chick-fil-A Hand-Spun Milkshakes first premiered in 2006 and have grown to be one of the most popular products on their menu. The Peach Milkshake debuted as an LTO in 2009, and the company has said the peach flavor, in particular, is a tremendous hit with customers who wait for it all year long.

  • McDonald’s Shamrock Shake

    Launched in Chicago in 1970, local franchisees invented it as a way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Second only to the McRib on McDonald’s list of most popular LTOs, this March mainstay appears each year.

Do Consumers Really Want This?

You may be thinking: If there's a high demand for a product, why would I want to limit its revenue potential by restricting availability? Don’t consumers want regular menu favorites they can order any time?

Of course, we agree that offering a solid regular menu is vitally important, but the scarcity principle shouldn’t be overlooked. Consider these stats:

  • 32% of consumers change their beverage preference depending on the time of year or season (2018 Consumer Beverage Trend Report, Technomic).

  • Seasonal beverage LTOs can have a very positive impact on visit frequency. For instance, McDonald’s Shamrock Shake buyers are the chain’s most loyal customers and they have higher purchase frequency rates, especially during the shake’s promotional period (2015 The NPD Group).

  • Fear of missing out causes youth and social media-motivated consumers to be keenly aware and covetous of limited time offers thanks to diners who share their LTO experiences via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. (2018 QSR magazine)

  • Half of Millennials and Gen Xers enjoy being the first of their friends to try an LTO menu item (2014 Technomic).

  • Limited-time menu items have increased 64% over the past five years at Top 500 chain restaurants and retail operations (2019 Restaurant Business magazine).

  • 48% of consumers tried an LTO item in the past month and 30% had ordered one in the past week (2015 Technomic).

Naturally, with the proliferation of LTOs not everything is going to be a winner – or a cult classic. But we see a lot of opportunities that haven’t been tapped.

Where We See Opportunity

In researching this subject and through our own expertise in the area of menu item creation we noticed many areas of opportunity, here are just a few of our ideas:

As you’ve read, LTO beverage flavors are popular with both chains and consumers. One item we haven’t seen is a spicy chocolate milkshake or coffee. Alternatively a spicy chocolate would also be a nice dessert filling. If you’re interested let us know! We are the perfect partner for this endeavor based on our expertise stewarding Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce.
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Another way to infuse the popular taste of chili peppers into your menu is to create a meat or poultry glaze or a dipping sauce. Yes, even a condiment can be a cult classic. McDonald’s Szechuan Teriyaki Dipping Sauce was introduced as a limited edition item in conjunction with a promotion for the 1998 Disney film Mulan. In 2017 it was spoofed by the creators of the Adult Swim animated comedy Rick and Morty who mentioned it in an episode and started a viral campaign to bring it back. McDonald’s took the hint and brought back the sauce as a one-day only limited edition in 2017 (lines wrapped around restaurants) and as an extended offering in 2018
Whatever segment of the restaurant industry you’re in, Southeastern Mills has the ideas and experience to make your next special menu item crave-worthy and unique. (The scarcity will have to be up to you!) If you’d like to hear more about what we can do for you, shoot us an email or use our contact form to drop us a line