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I recently wrote a blog post titled “Is Your Brand Addicted To Growth?” The topic of growth in the restaurant industry is a sensitive topic and one that strikes passionate chords on both sides of the argument for more growth/less growth. I have been thinking a lot more about this topic and I have much more to say, so this blog post is an attempt to get these thoughts out there for consideration, debate, and maybe some action steps for those who care to dip their toe in the waters of change. As I mentioned in that blog post, growth can be achieved in many different ways, including scaling down versus scaling up.

A few months ago, I watched “The Founder” and really enjoyed it. For full disclosure I was a long-time employee of the fast food giant and found the movie to be a good telling of the story as I understand it, obviously not having known Ray Kroc personally. My career started in 1984 at a McDonald’s in Blue Springs, MO on 7 Highway and it was a great experience in many ways. I absolutely loved it and the people I worked with over the course of my 17-year career.

Things were different back then, and much simpler. Chicken McNuggets were just a year old when I started and it was basically the core menu they had been serving for several years. It took 4’30” to make a quarter pounder, and there was no two-sided clamshell grill to speed up the cooking process. Everything was a process and everything was systematized.

But as chronicled in The Founder, it was even more simple in the beginning for McDonald’s. Burgers, fries, and shakes. It was brilliant. People lined up all day for that simple core menu. Even though there were a few rogue franchisees who tried to introduce things like fried chicken on Sunday, eventually things were put in check and the execution of the basic blocking and tackling of running a business ensured that things ran the way they were supposed to. It was fast. It was clean. And by all accounts it was delicious. McDonald’s grew, but it grew with great intentionality.

Over the next few decades there were notable additions to the menu coming from the franchisee community; Filet-O-Fish, Big Mac, and of course the Quarter Pounder. But those things were easy to systematize and implement. Breakfast was introduced in the 70’s and as I understand it, created some challenges, but there was a lot of momentum around that important day part. The Egg McMuffin which is the grandfather of all handheld breakfast sandwiches was a huge hit and the mainstay of the breakfast menu.

But as the chain grew, there were more menu additions and at one point in the early 1990’s there was a huge menu reduction. And then it grew again. Then more menu reductions. The operational system became more complex and harder to execute, so various automation systems were introduced to make things easier. But the only thing I think it made it easier to do was to add more menu items and increase speed of service. But at what cost? As pressure mounts to deliver faster service, more options, and increase same store sales how does the integrity of the food stay intact? Several years ago, a McDonald’s customer in Anchorage, AK chronicled her 6-year old purchase of a Happy Meal on Facebook to show that in 6 years there had been little to no degradation of the food.

I want to be clear that this is not a judgement on McDonald’s. It’s a reality affecting much of the QSR industry, and I believe is bleeding over to the fast-casual segment. When a company tries to be all things to all people, it is impossible to do it all with excellence. Period. It’s not that there aren’t talented people. It’s not that there isn’t thought and much hard work that went into the operational planning. It’s just too much to manage.

In defense of the restaurant industry, this is a problem in our society that we, the consumer, have created. We are all running here and there and everywhere, every day. In the age of on demand everything we are pressuring restaurant companies to deliver more for less, and that is putting stress on an ecosystem that was never built to handle the pressure being applied. We want 24-hour drive-thru service, all-day breakfast, and ordering kiosks. To what end? A lackluster experience with mediocre food, served semi-fast? Is it worth it?

The problem for restaurant companies like McDonald’s is that once you go down the road of implementing a massive menu and complex operations, you can’t undo it. I often wonder, what would happen if McDonald’s would go back to the core menu of burgers, fries, and shakes? Think about it. If they could, what would that look like? I think it would be incredible. A focused menu, with no bells and whistles. Can you imagine the lines out the door for that?

What if Taco Bell went back to their original menu? How awesome would that be?! Even at today’s prices. Tacos, burritos, tostadas, frijoles. Simple. Clean. Awesome.

I would ask the same question of any restaurant company that has been around for at least 30 years. What if they deconstructed their current, complex, saturated menu back to a focused menu with outstanding execution? What if they simplified the current operational system? What if they took a minimalist approach to doing business?

You see this approach today in some smaller to medium sized companies who have figured it out and it’s truly great to see it. While more than 3 items, there is a more focused menu with simplified execution that still appeals to the more sophisticated consumer with a more diverse palate, and they are very successful. But what would happen if one of the giant restaurant companies rebooted with a 2.0 version of themselves where they just focused on the core of what made them successful to begin with?

I would love to see the results of a restaurant company taking a more minimalist approach to the menu, construction, and operational execution. I hope we see some bigger companies rise to the challenge over the next few years to show all of us how less is more in the restaurant space by sticking to the core.

It is also my hope that some of these smaller to medium sized restaurant companies out there that have figured out the right balance between growth and operational execution will stay the course and be true to the vision that brought them to where they are (Raising Cane’s, In ‘N Out, Mighty Fine Burgers, Slim Chickens). Keeping it simple and achieving growth do not have to be exclusive to one another for a restaurant company to be successful.

Bobby Shaw is a Senior Partner in On Brand Media’s restaurant practice. He can be reached at On Brand Media provides Brand, Marketing and Management Solutions to clients navigating in a disrupted world. For more information visit

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