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The 10 Worst Modern Fast Food Dining Innovations

Like it or not, fast food dining is now an indelible part of American life. More than one-fourth of all Americans eat fast food every single day and 8 out of 10 eat it at least once a month. That means we’re all spending an inordinate amount of time sitting on plastic chairs in fast food dining rooms, standing in line at registers, disposing of our own trash, and navigating our vehicles through ever-changing drive-thrus. Sometimes that experience is good, but a lot of the time it’s not.

Some things about the fast food experience can’t really be changed, but the things that can be changed, aren’t always changed for the better. We may be eating fast food more than ever before, but in the process of increasing the niche cheap burgers and tacos fill in our lives the experience of eating them hasn’t really gotten better.

You can read our list of the ten best modern fast food innovations (opens in new tab), but these are the ten worst modern fast food innovations, in no particular order...

super size me

1. The Demise Of Supersize

In 2004 filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released a movie called Super Size Me, which lambasted McDonalds for giving people the option to make their meals bigger. Facing a PR disaster, McDonalds stopped Super Sizing their menu items. Or at least that’s what they said. In reality they kept right on super sizing them and just dropped the term. So, instead of walking up to the counter and saying rather simply and clearly, “I’ll have a number one, super sized!” customers are now forced to hem and haw around with uncertain and far less satisfying terminology.

Thanks to Morgan Spurlock, we’re still getting fatter but we’re having a lot less fun doing it. “I’ll have a number one, er, big, er, large-sized?” Doesn’t have the same ring to it. If I’m going to eat it anyway, I’d rather Super Size it.

fast food calories

2. Calories Count Me Out

Listen, I know ordering fast food isn’t a good decision. I have common sense, and I read the news. Eating fast food every day for forty years will put a cow-sized blockage in my arteries and probably give me a heart attack. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to indulge once every few weeks and savor every terrible-for-me-bite. Unfortunately, it’s pretty damn hard to do that when I’m forced to look at the number of calories I’m about to eat in giant text as I’m ordering.

Deep down, I know I’m about to consume 2,000 calories, but superficially, I don’t want to know for sure. I want to round down and chalk the experience up to a worthwhile splurge that will make me feel better emotionally, at least briefly. Seeing the calories written out as an honest to Ronald McDonald fact is the equivalent of seeing a giant blinking light that says “A Baby Might Come From This” every single time I have sex. I get it. I really do. But I don’t want to think about it.

Does that make me a delusional idiot living in a naïve fantasyland of denial? Sure. But considering I’m only going there once or twice a month, I’m fine with that.

Disagree? Think calories on the menu are a good idea? Then you'll probably like this: Why On Menu Calories Are A Good Idea

dollar menu

3. The Rising Cost Of Cheap Food

I suppose this one was inevitable. Cokes aren’t a dime anymore. The world evolves and inflation pushes prices higher and higher, but over the past five years or so, the escalation in rates hasn’t exactly been a trickle. Inspired to get rid of some of the weird filler substances and be a little more humane in their animal rights practices, many of the fast food places have been forced to start eliminating dollar menus or greatly reduce the number of choices that are dollar menu eligible. Even worse, they’ve begun raising prices on many of the other menu items to the point where ordering a combo, with tax, can now reach upwards of eight or nine dollars. That’s just a few dollars less than the lower-end sit-down chains, and it makes conventional fast food a whole lot less appealing.

I get needing to make money. Losing the dollar menu was inevitable, but something needs to be done about how quickly the prices are hiking. Our fast food nation was built on being a cheap alternative just as much as it was on being convenient, and there’s nothing that feels valuable or thrifty about getting out a five dollar bill and three ones to pay for a low quality cheeseburger option.


4. When Lawyers Have Their Way, Playland Goes Away

You probably have fond memories of trips with your parents to McDonalds, or Burger King, or Hardees, or whatever. It’s probably not the food you remember so much as the play area. Fast Food restaurants used to be mostly for children and as such they all had a playground. Those days are over. Most of the newer restaurants are built without them and as the old ones are being remodeled, a lot are taking them out. Your kids and mine will likely never have the fun of running wild in a McDonalds play area. Worse, as parents, it now means you have to try to keep them entertained yourself instead of sitting and quietly enjoying your Whopper Jr. while they hang from the monkey bars.

This might sound like a good thing to those of you who are childless, but it isn’t. It’s not like removing the play area will stop people from bringing their kids to McDonalds. It only means that now, instead of cordoning the little hooligans off behind a glass window where they can’t bother you, they’re running amok in the dining room as you attempt to scarf down your Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap. No winners here, except for a few McDonalds lawyers afraid of lawsuits from kids who fall off the Mayor McCheese Merry-Go-Round and crack open their heads.


5. Corporate Ketchup Curmudgeons

It used to be ordering fries at a McDonalds automatically meant you’d get ketchup with it. They’re fries after all, you can’t have one without the other. You didn’t have to ask for it at the drive-thru, they’d just throw a bunch of packets in your bag without saying anything. You didn’t have to beg for some teenager to go rooting around behind the counter for a few crusty old packages like this is the first he’s ever heard of anyone eating fries with ketchup before. They just had it sitting out for you to grab as much of it as you wanted, buckets of delicious red, waiting to be poured over a generous helping of fries.

Those days are gone. Even Taco Bell tends not to hand out the hot sauce unless you make a point of telling them to give it up. Some places have even started charging for their condiments, and those that don’t, look at you like a criminal when you ask for extra of something that costs them less than a fraction of a cent.

digital soda machine

6. Digital Soda Machine Detention

It seems like such a good idea. Until recently, soda machines hadn’t changed much in the last 25 or 30 years. But thanks to digital technology, the latest generation of fountains has hundreds of choices instead of only four or five. That sounds like a good idea, until you actually try to use one.

The thing is, the machines have only one nozzle. Where two or three people would have been able to walk up to an old style machine and stick in their cup to fill up, Digital Soda fountains are only one cup at a time. They’re also expensive, so the restaurants that have them almost never have more than one.

Worse, having so many choices means you need an incredibly complicated, touch screen interface in order to operate it. Even the most technologically savvy person is often left befuddled and confused. Forget about getting through that line fast if it’s your grandma, walking up trying to figure out how to get the thing to dispense a simple cup of water.

So while the choices are great, the machines are incredibly slow at actually serving people drinks. There’s always a ridiculously long line for a fill, and frankly, I suspect that’s what they had planned all along. If the lines are long no one will get refills and that’s potential savings for any particularly penny-pinching Firehouse Subs franchise owner. Give me back the old fashioned soda fountain. It may have only five choices, but a Diet Coke in ten-seconds is better than waiting fifteen minutes for a small Sprite Zero with a cherry syrup drop.

Disagree? Think Digital Soda Machines are a good thing? Then you'll love this: Why Digital Soda Machines Are The Best (opens in new tab)

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7. Political Protestors And Genocide Free With Every Meal

Look, I already feel guilty when I walk into a Wendy’s and order a triple with cheese, the last thing I need is a bunch of dudes walking out front with picket signs yelling at me for daring to go in. But that’s exactly what happened at Chick-Fil-A’s across the country when people learned that the guy who owned them wasn’t exactly down with gay marriage. I shouldn’t have to pass some sort of political test to walk into a restaurant and eat the world’s best chicken sandwich. I don’t want to think about how much the government does or does not suck while guzzling down lemonade and shoving my face full of waffle fries. Note to all Fast Food CEO’s: If you feel the urge to oppress someone, keep your money in your wallet and your hateful thoughts to yourself.

Even the drive-thru is no longer an escape from the modern pressures of whatever the nation’s cause of the moment might be. Now drive-thru workers are asking for charity donations, because there’s nothing I want more than to eat a Nachos Bel Grande while thinking about atrocities in Dafur. I love donating to charity, but I’m not in the habit of donating to charities I don’t know anything about. The drive-thru line at Taco Bell is hardly the right time to research the giving policies of something called “Stuff for Kids”. For all I know, I might be giving money to help the Catholic Church hide pedophiles or take condoms away from AIDS riddled African rapists. No thanks, shut up and give me my Bean Burrito.

8. Picture In Picture: A Menu Disaster

This is what a McDonalds menu looked like in 1974.

This is what a McDonalds menu looks like now.

What changed? Pictures. They’ve converted the entire thing into a series of pictures. It happened slowly at first, only adding pictures of the combos but still keeping the names of items and their price if you wanted to order them separately, on the menu. Now even that’s mostly gone. Some modern menus, like the one above still keep a couple of basics like the hamburger or the dollar menu items listed with text, but that’s about it.

This is a problem. Because if I walk into a McDonalds, Wendy’s, or any other fast food restaurant and just want to order a burger, I used to be able to look up at the menu, see their list of burgers, and select the one I wanted. Now… I have no idea what they actually have. I can’t get a complete list of all the burgers on their menu, in one easy to select from spot. That’s particularly important since the modern fast food restaurant seems to add a new burger gimmick at least once a week. Yet since I can’t figure out what’s what, most of the time I stick to ordering the stuff I know they have from memory. You can’t go wrong with “Give me a Big Mac.”

Still, it could be nice to try something different, if I could figure out whether or not they have it from the menu. The pictures are huge, the prices for individual items hard to figure out… really it’s a mess unless you just want to walk up to the register and shout “I’ll have the #1” it isn’t too helpful. I’m glad McDonalds has more menu options now than they had in 1974, but that just means they need to get more organized about how they’re putting them on the menu, not focused entirely on taking really nice pictures.


9. Drive-Thru Disorientation

The faster your drive-thru the more customers you serve, so it’s no surprise that our nation’s food chains would look for ways to get you through faster. Back in the old days you just drove up to the window and ordered. That was pretty slow. Then they put in the speaker and fast food was really fast. Only, that wasn’t good enough. Next they tried double windows. You’d order at one then you’d pay at another. Some then took it a step further adding three or even four windows, each taking on a different part of the process. Others have taken to adding multiple ordering screens which funnel you into a single line to pay.

None of it is any faster than the old fashioned single speaker, single window arrangement and all of it’s a confusing disaster.

Most of the multiple-window innovators don’t even use their extra windows anymore, as a result. Instead you’ll find yourself pulling up to empty window after empty window, guessing whether or not you’re supposed to stop, unsure if there’s anyone manning it or not.

The double line arrangement is worse, always a consistent mess in which nobody’s ever sure who’s supposed to go first. If you get it wrong there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with someone’s Filet-o-Fish combo when all you wanted was a 6-piece box of Chicken McNuggets.


10. Fast Food: No Longer Fast

In 1997 this was how ordering worked at every McDonalds in America: Walk up to the register. Order your burger. Give them the money for it. The cashier turns around, picks up what you ordered and hands it to you. This transaction often took as little as sixty-seconds. That’s how it got the name, fast food.

This is what happened yesterday when I walked into a McDonalds: I walked up to the register. Ordered my burger. Paid the cashier. The cashier took my name and said “ok we’ll have it for you soon.” I sort of lurked around the register for awhile, but after about 5 minutes got tired of standing there awkwardly. So I went and sat down. I wanted to listen to my iPod, but I couldn’t, because I needed to be alert for them to call my name. So I just sort of stared out the window for awhile. After ten-minutes passed, I heard someone shout “Josh? Josh?” I stood up, went to the register, pushing my way past people in line to order. I picked up my tray and now I had my food.

Fast food isn’t really all that fast anymore. Your average Applebees can get a meal to you in 10 – 15 minutes. The best McDonalds can do is 5 to 10. More if you have the temerity to order a Filet-O-Fish during the lunch rush.

What changed? Heat lamps. Before 1998 McDonalds, and a lot of other fast food restaurants, used to pre-make all their most popular items and put them on a shelf behind the register underneath a heat lamp designed to keep them warm. Sometimes the food would sit there for hours before you got it, but that wasn’t always bad. Some items, like McDonalds burgers, actually taste a little better when they’ve had a while to steam in their wrapper. But whether or not it was good didn’t matter much, because you went there to get your food fast, and that’s exactly what you got. In 1998 McDonalds decided that customers didn’t like heat lamps, so they and everyone else who used them (Taco Bell for instance) took them out of their stores. At the time the company promised they’d maintain their speed by somehow using robots, but instead of hiring Johnny Five to man the grill it’s still usually just some teenage girl named Hilda.

I’m not suggesting McDonalds should use heat lamps for all their food, but maybe they could put one back up and keep a few hamburgers sitting under it for those of us who are actually in a hurry, or maybe for those times when they know they’re about to get slammed by a big crowd. If I’m going to wait 15-minutes for a Quarter Pounder, I’m probably better off ordering a Guacamole Burger and an Old Fashioned in the bar at Red Robin.