Recall These Thoughts

No more dollar menu

NPR posted an article about Moo Cluck Moo, a fast casual restaurant chain that pays its workers $15 per hour while remaining profitable. In addition to treating their employees comparatively well, they also bake their buns fresh in store, make their own mayonnaise, and source meat from producers who treat their animals well and do not use hormones and antibiotics. The result is a burger that costs $6. The article compares this to a Big Mac, currently priced at $4.80.

Michael Strain, an economist, is quoted in the article stating that this poses no threat to conventional fast food. His logic is that Moo Cluck Moo and McDonalds are ultimately targeting different groups of customers. McDonalds is after the Dollar Menu crowd which, Strain says, isn’t going to swing for the comparatively expensive Fast Casual burger. Presumably it is only a concerned elite that will spring for the pricy Moo Cluck Moo burger. But this logic doesn’t seem to follow the current fast food reality. While NPR compares the price of Moo Cluck Moo’s burger to McDonalds largest offering, the Big Mac, the difference is still only $1.20. Without knowing the weight of the patty on each burger, it is hard to say who is getting more food, but putting the most obvious measure of perceived value aside, fresh baked buns and house-made aioli and quality beef for only an extra $1.20 isn’t so bad. Arguably the two burgers are not in to dramatically different price points. A customer able and willing to spend $4.80 on a Big Mac would also likely willing and capable of buying a $6 burger.

Further, Strain’s invocation of the dollar menu is largely obsolete: That menu doesn’t exist any longer, and the value, perceived and real, isn’t great. In addition, McDonalds is struggling with consistently declining sales and prices that continue to climb. Likely some of McDonalds’ sales, especially of higher priced menu items, are already being lost to fast casual restaurants. Those losses are likely to continue as the fast food/fast casual price gap continues to narrow.

While it remains to be seen whether fast casual poses a significant threat to fast food remains to be seen. However I don’t think that we can use price point alone to dismiss the threat, as Strain has in the NPR article. Further, here are other differences, such as the overall (economic) sustainability of the fast food business model and the appeal or acceptability of that model to customers will likely continue to wane, and not just for a concerned elite. To claim only an elite have concern for their personal and environmental health is underestimating the non-elite (read “lower income”) crowds.