scorecardPeople are really annoyed about the price of fast food
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People are really annoyed about the price of fast food

Grace Dean   

People are really annoyed about the price of fast food
Retail4 min read
  • Fast food is getting more expensive, and Americans are annoyed about it.
  • Diners told BI they're cutting back on how often they get fast food because of rising prices.

Fast-food chains have raised prices drastically in recent years — blaming everything from rising food costs and labor shortages to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Because of this, some fast-food customers are starting to cut back and are opting to eat at home or switch to dine-in options, which are increasingly viewed as better value for money.

Sara Senatore, a restaurant analyst at Bank of America, told Business Insider that fast-food restaurants historically increased prices by about 2% yearly. At some restaurants in 2022 and 2023, they went up by double-digits, she said.

As general inflation, including for groceries, comes down, she's expecting consumers to be even "less tolerant" of the price increases in the restaurant industry.

But cheaper fast food may be some way off. California's new $20 minimum wage for limited-service restaurant workers kicked in this month and has prompted price hikes on menus statewide.

Experts say it could have a ripple effect on wages across the fast food industry nationwide, meaning that your favorite spots could become even pricier.

Even the more loyal fast-food diners are cutting back

In interviews with BI, more than a dozen consumers from different parts of the US referred to a range of fast-food chains they said had gotten more expensive in recent years — from McDonald's and Dunkin' to Subway and Chipotle.

Warren Colehour, a 40-year-old student in Kentucky, said he used to go to Dunkin' almost every morning for a breakfast sandwich and coffee but has cut it down to about four days a month because of the price. "I can't bring myself to spend $8 on that food," he said.

Chad Frye, a cartoonist and illustrator based in California who said he used to be a "fast-food junkie," said he's cut down his fast-food habit from four or five times a week to just twice.

He said that he had particularly noticed price increases at McDonald's.

"You could go into McDonald's and there would be a whole array of choices on a value menu, and they used to call it the dollar menu, and you can't get anything in there for a dollar anymore," he said.

McDonald's USA told BI that pricing is set by local franchisees and varies by restaurant.

"McDonald's always strives to strike the right balance of value for money," a company spokesperson said, noting that customers can also get offers and free items through its app.

Some diners said that they thought the quality of fast food meant that it just wasn't worth the price anymore.

"I think mentally you maybe don't think it tastes as good anymore because you're paying a lot more for it," Frye said.

For Martin Jennings, a 51-year-old Florida-based truck driver, fast food is often the only meal available on the road, and it's become increasingly hard to find affordable options.

Most truck stops have chain fast-food restaurants, "and you're just stuck with whatever's there," he said.

"It's just so expensive that we try to avoid it," he added. Instead, he uses the freezer and microwave in his truck to store and heat up leftovers he brings from home.

"I pack as much food as I can before I leave the house to avoid eating out," he said.

Dunkin' and Chipotle did not respond to requests for comment from BI. A Subway spokesperson said that "significant changes" have been made to the quality of its menu while "maintaining affordability."

"While pricing guidelines are provided to ensure we are maintaining our value proposition systemwide, pricing is set by our franchisees," the spokesperson noted.

Consumers are turning to sit-down restaurants

Rising fast-food prices are making sit-down meals — whether at formal restaurants or casual-dining chains like Chili's, Applebee's, and Olive Garden — more attractive to some diners.

While fast-food restaurants are generally chosen for their price and convenience, sit-down restaurants are usually seen as more expensive places where diners can relax and socialize.

But the closing price gap between full- and limited-service restaurants means some diners are going to sit-down restaurants more often.

Ben Heyworth, an account executive in Florida, is one example. He recently pivoted from dining in at fast-food chains such as Subway, Burger King, and McDonald's in favor of fast-casual and sit-down restaurants.

He's found that the food, service, and atmosphere are better in these chains and that they generally charge a similar price, he said.

Diners are hunting for bargains

While some diners are increasingly abandoning fast food, others are keeping a close eye on restaurant deals to get more bang for their buck.

Offers the interviewees highlighted included Del Taco's three tacos for $2 deal on Tuesdays, Arby's for their two for $6 deal on sandwiches, and Subway's coupons.

"I'm looking for extreme value when I'm going out," 58-year-old Oregon resident Richard McConnell said.

Others are using fast-food chains' apps to score cheap or free food, too.

Fast food still lures diners in

This isn't to say that sales at fast-food chains are slumping. In 2023, for example, comparable US sales at McDonald's were up 8.7% year-over-year. In 2022, they were up 5.9% in the US. At Burger King, this figure was 7.5% in 2023.

The taste and convenience of fast food is still bringing diners in.

Ricardo Rodriguez, a 60-year-old semi-retired finance worker in California, told BI that he gets "sticker shock" whenever he buys a Double Big Mac.

But he still goes to the chain about three times a month, and said his wife would use the app to get a free sandwich or portion of fries. Their average spend is about $25, he said.

The main reason Rodriguez gets fast food is the taste, he said.

"Even if they were to raise the price on the McGriddle sandwich, I probably would still go and buy it," he added.




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