Managing Menu Hacks to Ensure Efficiency and Good CX

Allowing Too Much Customization Can Hurt Restaurants and Their Employees

Restaurant menu hacks and customization

One of the key differentiators being used by fast food restaurants is the ability to customize orders, beyond simply asking for additional condiments. ”Menu hacks” like ordering items not on the menu, finding better deals by ordering a base item and then adding options, and asking for custom-made items or combinations of items have increasingly become popular, thanks to the proliferation of social media sites, online ordering apps, and message boards or communities dedicated to sharing these workarounds.

Allowing customers to employ these hacks can help endear a restaurant to its customers, and help cement a reputation of being truly customer-centric. But the increased complexity of allowing one-off customization of products and orders, particularly in a high-volume, low-margin business, can create significant issues, particularly for workers struggling to keep up. One recent example is Chipotle’s response to a menu hack that allowed customers to purchase a burrito for $3, far less than what the item is priced on the regular menu. Customers could order a single taco via Chipotle’s online system with all available free toppings on the side. By combining the ingredients with a plain tortilla, customers can create a burrito that would otherwise cost much more than $3.

Workers were not happy with the menu hack, according to press reports that highlighted workers’ anger about the hack slowing down production and wasting plastic, while providing customers with the same order for less money. When Chipotle executives learned of the hack, they informed store managers in early September that customers would no longer be able to order a single taco online and that the capability would be taken down “until further notice,” according to an email obtained by Insider.

And given the difficulty in finding and retaining good workers for these types of customer-facing jobs, Chipotle cited worker issues as a key reason for eliminating the menu hack. “Our employees are our greatest asset, and we are committed to providing a positive experience for our teams and ultimately our guests,” Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer, told Insider in a statement.

For restaurants that make fast service a key component of their value proposition, hacks can drastically impact efficiency and the guest experience. In addition to slowing down the time it takes to serve a customer that has ordered a hack, the delays can reverberate down the line. Another key issue that often arises is that workers may not get the hack correct (since they are either rushed, or they have not been able to be properly trained on the hack), thereby impacting the customer’s perceived experience.

While corporations often embrace hacks because they help drive brand recognition, improve loyalty, and let customers develop menu items that are certain to appeal to them, there are steps that should be taken to ensure that hacks do not overwhelm staff, or drastically impact service key performance indicators (KPIs) or the company’s bottom line.

Consider implementing limits for customizations:For fast food or fast-casual businesses that are often overwhelmed by customer volume, consider limiting customers’ ability to customize their orders to specific days or times during the day when staff will not be overwhelmed. In addition to making it easier for the staff to service all customers efficiently during a rush, it can help shift some business to less-busy times of the day, such as between the breakfast and lunch rush, the mid-afternoon, or after the dinner rush.

Set limits to what elements can be customized: Setting limits on the number of ingredients guests can select for a dish saves time and labor, Bill Guilfoyle, associate professor of business management at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, explained to trade publication QSR. Guilfoyle added that too many choices can be confusing for customers, and restaurants should be certain that any food item can be cross-utilized in at least one other menu item, to reduce or eliminate waste and ensure efficient use of ingredients.

Analyze menus to eliminate loopholes that encourage menu hacks focused on price: Menu hacks can be used to encourage more interaction with a brand or service, often in creative ways. However, smart organizations should scour their menu to close loopholes that allow customers to simply reduce the price they pay for an item. In addition to impacting the bottom line, these types of hacks make it more difficult for organizations to retain control over their menu, manage ordering of ingredients, and truly assess demand for established products. Price hacks also negatively impact staff morale, as more time may be needed to complete a hack order, compared with a sanctioned custom order.

Consider adding a surcharge for customization, or offer the ability to customize as part of a loyalty program scheme:  While a certain degree of customization (such as withholding specific condiments, or adding an extra one) can be fairly easily accommodated without drastically impacting service times, highly customized orders can wreak havoc on operational efficiency. Consider charging customers a slight surcharge to complete a customized order (similar to a “rush fee”) that clearly attaches value to customization, rather than simply allowing customers to run wild and test the limits of the company and its workforce. Alternatively, consider making the ability to highly customize an order part of a loyalty program, which again attaches value to customization, but also allows the company to track and remember individualized order preferences. This will help improve personalization, and allow the company to better track what type of customizations a guest typically desires, so that the company can better prepare for each customer.

In the end, the goal is to balance the customer’s desire to get a product they want, the way they want it, against the real-world constraints of available labor, customer throughput, and order complexity. By deploying some limits, it allows the company to still service customers who desire a customized product, while limiting customers’ ability to simply game the system for their own economic benefit.

Author Information

Keith has over 25 years of experience in research, marketing, and consulting-based fields.

He has authored in-depth reports and market forecast studies covering artificial intelligence, biometrics, data analytics, robotics, high performance computing, and quantum computing, with a specific focus on the use of these technologies within large enterprise organizations and SMBs. He has also established strong working relationships with the international technology vendor community and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events.

In his career as a financial and technology journalist he has written for national and trade publications, including BusinessWeek,, Investment Dealers’ Digest, The Red Herring, The Communications of the ACM, and Mobile Computing & Communications, among others.

He is a member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP).

Keith holds dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in Magazine Journalism and Sociology from Syracuse University.


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