It’s been six months since McDonald’s removed All-Day Breakfast from its menu in a bid to help its operators improve speed of service at a time when the only business its restaurants had was the drive-thru.
In June, it became clear the company was reconsidering the service’s future, as operators began pushing for its permanent end, largely citing the company’s super-quick drive-thru times.
All-Day Breakfast still isn’t back. It seems more likely to remain off the menu than to return to it at this point, and the reasons are indicative of a restaurant industry that has completely shifted its priorities during the pandemic.
To understand that shift, look at where McDonald’s is now versus where it was back in the fall of 2015.
At the time, McDonald’s had been in a real slump. Same-store sales averaged a 1.1% decline in the U.S. between the first quarter of 2013 and the second quarter of 2015, including six straight negative quarters. The company overhauled management, replacing CEO Don Thompson with Steve Easterbrook, and it needed a win.
The company’s breakfast items had widely been considered some of the strongest products in the chain’s arsenal, and its morning sales had been growing even as the chain’s afternoon sales were weak. Customers were increasingly demanding McDonald’s breakfast products after 10:30 a.m.
What’s more, the fast-food business at the time was in an intense, competitive period. The emergence of fast-casual players and rapid overall industry growth had made it important for more traditional concepts to break through marketing clutter and get customers’ attention.
It worked, too. Same-store sales went from a decline of 2% in the second quarter to an increase of 5.7% in the fourth quarter, after its introduction. They increased 5.4% in the first quarter of 2016.
McDonald’s, and the restaurant industry, are in a different position today.
For one thing, the industry is not in nearly the same state. It is much smaller. The competitive dynamics are different. And one could make a case that McDonald’s would be better off at this point limiting its breakfast items to the morning.
There are fewer restaurants in the U.S. right now—August restaurant sales were down 21% from last year, according to recent federal data. Much of the industry demand has shifted toward takeout and delivery.
The fast-food business is clearly competitive, and the players still need some marketing heft to get attention, as witnessed by McDonald’s recent introduction of Spicy Chicken McNuggets. But the industry is competing more based upon their ability to get customers through the drive-thru these days than they are competing for customers eager to try new things.
As such, it’s less important now to have a lot of products on the menu, and more important to get customers through that lane. So menu reductions have been commonplace, and not just at McDonald’s but at chains like Taco Bell.
All-Day Breakfast is operationally more difficult because it requires restaurants to make Egg McMuffins alongside burgers. Removing it has made operators’ lives much simpler. “Our teams are doing amazing work in our drive-thrus,” Blake Casper, chairman of the National Owners Association, told the group’s members back in June.
Unlike in 2015, McDonald’s hardly needs All-Day Breakfast to goose sales. The company had 12 straight quarters of same-store sales growth before the pandemic. What’s more, demand for drive-thru concepts has helped the company recover relatively quickly. The chain’s back-to-back marketing campaigns, Travis Scott and then spicy nuggets, have likely pushed sales further.
And the chain’s challenge now is in the morning. Going into the pandemic, McDonald’s had been losing customer count, especially at breakfast. After the pandemic, it has more competition for the a.m. customer thanks to entrance of Wendy’s into the a.m. competitive set.
By placing the limitations back on breakfast McDonald’s could theoretically limit supply and force customers to go to its restaurants in the morning if they want their McMuffin fix.
To be sure, as Business Insider pointed out this week, customers have been angry at the lack of afternoon breakfast items. But if that anger isn’t causing sales to decline and putting the product back onto the menu could anger more customers by slowing service, the choice really isn’t all that complex.
None of which is to say that the company shouldn’t consider bringing it back down the line, but it’s an arrow best kept in the quiver.