THEN AND NOW: How fast-food menus have changed over the years

  • McDonald's Big Mac, Burger King's Whopper, and Popeyes' chicken sandwich — while these items are now undeniably iconic, at one point they were all brand new.
  • Business Insider looked at how fast-food restaurant menus have changed over the years, from McDonald's to Chick-fil-A to In-N-Out.
  • Some menu changes brought about astronomical sales, while others outraged customers to the point of social media rants and even violence.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When the McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant in 1940, it served barbecue food, while Taco Bell's first location had just five items on the menu. But over time, these restaurants have perfected their offerings, ultimately becoming the fast-food giants we know today.

Business Insider took a look back at how the menus at McDonald's, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out, White Castle, Taco Bell, and Popeyes have evolved over time.

Here's how fast-food menus have changed over the years.

When the McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant, it served barbecue food.

At the original McDonald's Bar-B-Q restaurant in San Bernardino, California, customers could pull up to the restaurant for carhop service. Future locations would switch to the walk-up model to order from the restaurant's large menu.

In 1948, the McDonald brothers reduced the restaurant's offerings down to just nine items to make their Speedee Service system even more efficient.

The new menu included hamburgers, cheeseburgers, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips, and a slice of pie for dessert. In 1949, potato chips were swapped with french fries and McDonald's began selling milkshakes.

The addition of milkshakes to the McDonald's menu in 1949 would completely shift the future of the chain.

The new item, called Triple Thick Milkshakes, was made using Multimixer.

After Multimixer salesman Ray Kroc visited the original McDonald's brothers to sell them more mixers, he became intrigued in the business. He would go on to purchase the small business and become the tycoon and leader of the fast-food giant for 30 years.

Today, McDonald's still serves milkshakes, as well as McFlurries.

In 1965, McDonald's introduced the Filet-O-Fish sandwich nationwide.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, it was created in 1962 by Lou Groen, a McDonald's franchise owner in Cincinnati, Ohio, after he realized hamburger sales were declining on Fridays during the season of Lent.

Groen then decided to create a sandwich featuring fish instead of beef. Three years later, it was made available nationwide and has remained on McDonald's menus ever since.

McDonald's added the now-iconic Big Mac to its menu in 1967.

The first "Big Mac" featured a triple-decker burger and sold for 45 cents. 

Initially, there was a lot of deliberation over what the iconic burger would be named. However, Esther Glickstein Rose, a 21-year-old secretary for the company's advertising department in 1967, had the winning name — "Big Mac." Despite the name originally being ridiculed, according to AP, it's now known as one of "the best-known product names of all time."

Chicken McNuggets were added to menus in 1983.

According to USA Today, many diners in the 1980s were looking to reduce their fat intake and were shaking up their diets by introducing more lean protein and poultry and cutting out red meat. For McDonald's, adding chicken to their menu was a no-brainer.

This year, McDonald's added a spicy version of its chicken nuggets to menus. They quickly sold out and are no longer available in most locations.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and trying to streamline its operations, McDonald's is now offering a limited menu.

McDonald's stopped serving all-day breakfast and removed its chicken tenders, grilled chicken sandwich, a few burgers, and salads from menus nationwide.

"To simplify operations in our kitchens and for our crew, and ensure the best possible experience for our customers, we are working with our franchisees and local restaurants to focus on serving our most popular choices and will begin temporarily removing some items from the menu," Bill Garrett, McDonald's senior vice president of operations, said in a statement to Business Insider.

While some items, like the Bacon McDouble, are back, others have been permanently cut from the menu.

McDonald's is also experimenting with celebrity collaborations in a bid to reach Gen Z customers.

Rapper Travis Scott's collaboration with the chain was a huge success — so much so that McDonald's reported it was experiencing burger shortages as people clamored to try it. About a month after the release of the Travis Scott meal collab, McDonald's launched another partnership with reggaeton star J Balvin.

Neither meals included new menu items, showing the power of celebrity to inspire younger customers to order from McDonald's.

McDonald's is also prepping to bring back some fan-favorite, nostalgic menu items.

The infamous McRib sandwich first appeared on McDonald's menus in 1981. After four years of lackluster sales, it was removed from the chain's menu. However, in 1989, the McRib returned. Until 2005, the item could be found on many McDonald's menus worldwide and is a staple at locations in Germany and Luxembourg. 

In 2012, the McRib made its return to some menus after years of fan requests. However, just as quickly as it came, it disappeared. Now, McDonald's has announced the McRib will be available nationwide once again on December 2.

Plant-based menu items could be the future of McDonald's.

On November 9, McDonald's announced it would officially be venturing into the world of plant-based meat products. The chain is now in the process of developing the "McPlant," a lineup of plant-based burgers, "chicken," and more meat-free menu items, according to Business Insider.

McDonald's previously tested a plant-based burger called the PLT in Canada using Beyond Meat. Now, the fast-food powerhouse is setting its sights on creating its own meat substitute crafted exclusively for McDonald's restaurants.

"It's not a matter of if McDonald's will get into plant-based," CEO Chris Kempczinski said, according to Business Insider. "It's a matter of when."

Burger King opened its doors in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953, as "Insta-Burger King."

The chain, which quickly grew to be the second-largest fast-food chain in the country, behind McDonald's, served 18-cent flame-broiled burgers, milkshakes, and fries.

In 1957, Burger King released its signature burger, the Whopper.

The Whopper was 37 cents compared to Burger King's original burger, which cost 18 cents. The Whopper came with sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickles, and tomato, all piled on top of a larger patty.

Today, Burger King still broils and flame-grills its burgers.

More recently, Burger King revolutionized its menu with the addition of the Impossible Whopper, a meat-free version of its iconic sandwich.

Burger King's Impossible Whopper was hugely successful for the chain. According to CNN, Burger King reported a 10% increase in sales following the launch of the Impossible Burger in 2019.

However, while the burger is plant-based, Burger King received criticism after a customer sued the company for serving the burger that's not actually 100% vegan. Since the patties are cooked on the same grills as traditional meat burgers, they may come into contact with meat by-products. Burger King responded saying the chain never advertised the burger as vegan or promised to cook them in a particular way.

The Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia, opened in 1946. It would eventually become what we now know as Chick-fil-A.

The business, owned and operated by founder Truett Cathy, started off by selling standard items like waffles, breakfast foods, sandwiches, and burgers. 

However, everything changed when Chick-fil-A created its original chicken sandwich in 1964.

According to Chick-fil-A, Cathy tested hundreds of recipes for the original chicken sandwich before landing on a winner — a fried chicken fillet with two pickles on a toasted butter bun.

Though Chick-fil-A has expanded immensely since then, the chicken sandwich has remained virtually the same.

In 1989, Chick-fil-A added a grilled chicken sandwich to its menu.

Introduced as a "health-conscious option" for Chick-fil-A customers, Cathy introduced the original grilled chicken sandwich alongside the deluxe grilled chicken sandwich, which included the same pickle-juice-marinated grilled chicken, pickles, and white bun, along with lettuce and tomato.

In 1993, Chick-fil-A added the grilled chicken club sandwich to its menu. Then, in 2017, the chain announced it would be releasing a gluten-free bun option.

Today, the menu has more than 40 different menu items, but you certainly won't find burgers.

The menu is continually shifting gears to appeal to customers, but the chain's most famous item is undoubtedly still its original chicken sandwich.

In-N-Out became California's first drive-thru hamburger stand when it opened in 1948.

In 1958, In-N-Out replaced its bottled drinks with fountain service, offering customers beverages like Pepsi Cola, Nesbitt Orange, and Hires Root Beer. According to In-N-Out, a 12-ounce soda cost just 10 cents at the time.

In 1961, In-N-Out added "animal style" burgers to its menu.

The first Animal Style burger hit menus as a response to overwhelming customer requests. The recipe is still the same today as it was in the 1960s — a mustard-cooked beef patty, lettuce, tomato, pickles, extra spread, and grilled onions.

In 1963, In-N-Out began serving its famous Double-Double burger.

In 1975, In-N-Out began serving milkshakes. A few years later, In-N-Out opened its first location with a dining room in Ontario, California.

However, while some new items have been added since 1948, the menu is still pretty similar to the original menu, offering basic fast-food items like burgers and fries.

White Castle is regarded as the first fast-food hamburger chain in America. It opened its doors in 1921.

Founded by Billy Ingram as a family-owned business, the fast-food establishment originally sold 5-cent, small, square hamburgers by the sack. They would come to be known as "sliders."

In 1943, White Castle would sell hot dogs and fried eggs instead of its iconic burgers as a result of the war's beef rationing.

In 1962, White Castle began selling cheeseburgers.

This addition came 15 years after the chain secured a patent for its "holy" burgers — each burger is still grilled with five holes punched into it to add more flavor and help them cook faster.

Today, White Castle still sells its iconic sliders.

The sliders are also sold in grocery stores nationwide, meaning you can get your White Castle fix right at home. In 2018, White Castle revolutionized its menu by offering the plant-based Impossible Slider.

Taco Bell offered just five menu items when it opened in 1962.

Each item cost just 19 cents, and the menu featured traditional Mexican favorites like frijoles, tostadas, burritos, and tacos.

In 1984, Taco Bell introduced the Taco Salad and Taco BellGrande and, in 2004, Taco Bell began selling Mountain Dew Baja Blast.

In 2014, Taco Bell officially launched its breakfast menu nationwide.

It was the brand's largest marketing campaign to date and has proven to be successful year over year.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has caused fast-food breakfast sales to plummet, leaving the future of breakfast foods at giants like Taco Bell and McDonald's uncertain.

Today, Taco Bell has an expansive menu that offers a lot more than it did in the 1960s.

Countless different varieties of tacos and burritos make eating the entire menu a tall order.

However, the menu is getting a tad smaller.

In July, the fast-food chain announced it would be removing 12 items from its menu, including fan-favorite items such as Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes, Nachos Supreme, and Loaded Grillers. Some fans were outraged by the decision to ax potatoes, calling it the chain's "worst idea to date."

In September, Taco Bell announced it would be dropping the fan-favorite Mexican Pizza from its newly streamlined menu starting November 5.

"We know some fans may be sad to see this one go, we are too. One silver lining of saying goodbye to the Mexican Pizza that might help you rest easy is that removing it from our menus helps us work towards our commitment to leave a lighter footprint on our planet," Taco Bell said in a press release.

Popeyes first opened in 1972 as "Chicken on the Run" in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi, Louisiana.

The restaurant originally served traditional, Southern-style fried chicken. However, after the restaurant faced lackluster sales for a few months, founder Alvin C. Copeland Sr. changed the restaurant's name to "Popeyes" and began selling spicy New Orleans-style chicken.

In 1983, Popeyes began selling buttermilk biscuits.

The biscuits are now regarded as one of Popeyes' most iconic menu items and come with the chain's combo meals.

Before its famous chicken sandwich hit the menu, Popeyes mainly sold fried chicken and seafood.

The chain launched its Butterfly Shrimp Tackle Box in 2009, while Chicken Waffle Tenders and the Cajun Surf & Turf hit menus in 2013. 

Popeyes changed its direction — and, perhaps, the entire face of fast food — when it launched its now-famous chicken sandwich in 2019.

The chicken sandwich was so popular, it quickly sent restaurants into chaos before selling out entirely in just two weeks. A few months later, the menu item finally returned, much to the satisfaction of chicken and fast-food lovers nationwide.

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