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Restaurants get dragged into The Misinformation Age

The Bottom Line: Big Mac prices, corporate views on Israel-Palestine and even store closures have been subject to misinformation and outright lies. Blame the presidential election.
McDonald's Big Mac
Big Mac prices have increased. But not as much as some data says. | Photo: Shutterstock.

The Bottom Line

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No. The price of a Big Mac has not doubled since 2019.

It’s certainly not keeping people from saying so. Social media users, taking advantage of consumer frustration over price hikes, have passed around charts of fast-food chain prices claiming to show how they’ve doubled or even tripled at McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell.

Some of these charts and studies are then picked up by mainstream media, giving them a sense of credibility, worsening the industry’s value perception at a time when restaurants are losing customers to grocers.

Welcome to The Misinformation Age, restaurants.

The issue is hardly limited to fast-food prices, and its culprits come from both sides of the political spectrum.

Much of the problem at Starbucks is due to social media protests over its stance on the Middle East conflict, as if CEO Laxman Narasimhan could do anything about Israel’s military strategy in Gaza.

That kind of misinformation has hit KFC and McDonald’s around the world. But no chain has been hit harder than Starbucks, and it has taken a massive toll on the chain’s sales and traffic this year, rivaling the impact John Schnatter’s racist comments had on Papa Johns in 2017.

It’s even hit store closures, as social media spam accounts mix legitimate news (Red Lobster) with others that are entirely made up. One of them suggested that Buffalo Wild Wings was closing all its California locations, which is not happening.

In reality, the restaurant business is adding more locations than it’s closing, even if we are entering a period of accelerated closures due to weak sales, bankruptcy filings or debt coming due.

But this is the silly season, the months-long period before a national election in which both sides work hard to make The Other Guy look as bad as possible, facts and circumstance be damned. This has been the case since we first decided to start holding elections.

Misinformation, however, has proliferated and grown more sophisticated with the growth of social media and AI technology.

Fast-food prices are red meat for an era like this. They are symbolic of the inflationary environment. And they affect a huge swath of consumers: Everybody eats, and pretty much everybody eats fast food, even if they refuse to admit it.

And those prices are definitely increasing. Last month, fast-food prices rose 0.4%, compared with a 0.2% drop in grocery prices. People notice this. It’s fueling a price war in the burger business as we speak.

But prices also provide boogeymen that fit neatly on both sides of the political aisle. Liberals can decry price gouging by greedy corporations and they love nothing more than hammering on McDonald’s.

Conservatives decry Bidenomics or excessive regulation or California or some combination of all of them for driving up costs and therefore prices.

We can easily take apart the pricing issue. And we’ll focus on the Big Mac.

The Minneapolis StarTribune quoted a website, fastfoodmenuprices.com, which said the average price for a Big Mac was $8.29, which would be expensive indeed. That’s not even close to true.

According to data from Restaurant Business sister company Technomic, the national average price for a Big Mac was $4.99 in the first quarter nationwide. In California, home to the $20 fast food wage, that average price was $5.23.

The national average for a Big Mac combo meal was $9.05, far closer to the $8.29 quoted in the piece.

We looked at prices nationwide earlier this year, compared those prices to what they were three years ago, and found inflation surprisingly moderate when it comes to the Big Mac. But we also never saw a price as high as $8.29, let alone prices high enough to make that an average.

Alas, plenty of folks chimed in on this. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) jumped on this as a sign of inflation in a pair of Tweets on the social media site X before deleting them:

Rubio tweet

Screenshot from X.

Other social media users have taken information from one McDonald’s location in Los Angeles to highlight the problems. Liberals jumped on that one, decrying restaurants for “greed.” Never mind the expense of operating a restaurant in Los Angeles after the state increased pay rates 25% literally overnight.

X

Screenshot from X. 

At McDonald’s, and many other brands, prices are determined locally, typically with consulting firms that look at local market conditions.

Prices have increased in the fast-food business. But the prices that have increased the most have been lower-priced items removed from value menus, like the McDonald’s cheeseburger.

The reality doesn’t matter, however, to people trying to make a point. And as spam social media accounts proliferate along with stories that use AI to generate readers, expect this kind of misinformation to continue. Especially during silly season.

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