Funny things happened as dozens of complicated or less-popular items disappeared from McDonald's menu boards across the country: drive-through service times dropped by 25 seconds—a huge improvement—and orders became more accurate.
Customers aren't the only ones loving it. McDonald's franchisees know faster throughput means shorter drive-through lines, which in turn attract more customers. And leaner menus reduce inventories, boosting profit margins at a time when restaurant owners are struggling to cushion the financial impact of dine-in service bans.
"We are seeing improved sales throughout the country," an independent organization representing 80 percent of U.S. franchisees wrote to its members earlier this month. "The limited menu and ease of operations are allowing our teams to focus and provide blazing fast service."
Now the question is which menu items will return as states dial back restrictions on dine-in service. McDonald's has already started adding back a few offerings, including Bacon McDouble burgers, a couple of quarter-pounder variations and some desserts.
If franchisees get their way, all-day-breakfast won't make a comeback. The board of the franchisee group—the National Owners Association—voted this month to permanently eliminate round-the-clock breakfast service, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The owners are calling on McDonald's to reverse one of the most momentous steps in company history. All-day-breakfast was the signature move of former CEO Steve Easterbrook, who was fired last year over an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. After taking over in 2015 amid falling sales, Easterbrook scrapped McDonald's longstanding policy against selling breakfast food after 10:30 AM. The deadline frustrated generations of customers who didn't understand why they couldn't get an Egg McMuffin at 10:45 in the morning.
Easterbrook did more than extend the deadline; he made breakfast available at McDonald's any time of day or night. Hailed for its responsiveness to customers, the move jolted McDonald's out of a prolonged slump. All-day-breakfast triggered a string of strong quarterly sales reports, and Easterbrook became a hero to customers and McDonald's shareholders.
But franchisees didn't share their enthusiasm for all-day-breakfast. Cooking breakfast items like bacon and sausages alongside burgers and other lunchtime fare is difficult in cramped McDonald's kitchens. Flavors mingle if they're cooked simultaneously on the same grill. So operators have to grill a batch of breakfast items, clean the grill, cook some lunch items, and so on. The complicated process bogs down kitchen operations, slowing service. Some operators try to improve efficiency by cooking large amounts of breakfast food in advance, which means customers might get sausage that have been sitting around a while.
Like any fast-food innovation, all-day-breakfast eventually fizzled out as a growth driver. With breakfast sales outside of the morning rush now baked into McDonald's ongoing revenue base, they no longer generate incremental gains in same-store sales.
"It got a lot of attention, drove some incremental sales, but it ran out of gas" before Covid-19, says restaurant strategy consultant Bob Goldin of Pentallect Inc., who predicts all-day-breakfast won't reappear on a simplified post-pandemic menu. "I think this is going be a casualty, yes."
As all-day-breakfast plateaus, franchisees' longstanding gripes about the offering become harder for McDonald's executives to dismiss. The business case for selling breakfast from sun-up to sundown is shaky at best. Industry experts say most breakfast sales still come in the traditional morning time frame. Ending breakfast service during afternoon and evening hours would likely cost McDonald's few sales.
"Maybe they could cut it off at 11:30," suggests restaurant consultant John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group. "They could get the majority of the breakfast demand squeezed in before the lunch hour."
Most convincing is the franchisees' verdict. They wouldn't have voted against bringing back all-day breakfast if it generated sufficient sales to justify the costs.
McDonald's brass seems to be listening. Addressing the future of all-day-breakfast on a webcast with operators last week, U.S. chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley said, “the reality is we still have more work to do to further analyze what makes sense. Any final decision will drive business while minimizing operation disruptions.”
Company executives also must consider changes in the changing fast-food breakfast market. Until recently, breakfast has been a lucrative, hotly competitive arena where McDonald's has fought hard to maintain its advantage.
But even as rival chains battle for breakfast dominance, more customers are eating morning meals at AG亚洲国际游戏home. Covid-19 converted millions of people into remote workers, eliminating morning commutes that might have included a stop at McDonald's. Many will continue working at AG亚洲国际游戏home after the pandemic, a fundamental shift that threatens long-term demand for fast-food breakfast.
"The loss of breakfast volume will be a major challenge for them," Goldin says.
A maximized breakfast offering makes less sense in a declining breakfast market. On the other hand, returning to the old 10:30 cutoff could needlessly sacrifice sales and alienate customers. A better approach for McDonald's would take regional and local factors into account. Restaurants in college towns, for example, might do brisk breakfast business until 1 p.m. Downtown outlets, by contrast, might sell few Egg McMuffins after the morning rush.
I don't know what McDonald's will do. But I have this advice for late-rising Egg McMuffin fans: Set your alarm clocks earlier.