Food & Drink

Fast Food Isn't Dying. It's Never Been Better.

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Though profits are (mostly) down while controversies continue to swirl, and our newly health-conscious culture is pushing us away from fried foods and into organic analogues, 2016 won't see the gurgling, slow-churning death of the fast-food industry. This year marks the middle of the new beginning. The clown-faced dinosaurs of fast food are adjusting to the demands of the clamoring public, and they are making the entire food world better in the process. We're in a veritable Golden Age of Fast Food.

If you have a set of eyes and a Wi-Fi router, you've probably read that millennials are eating less fast food than ever. This is a generation that grew up clutching Happy Meals in the back of mom's Suburban and wearing plastic BK crowns with the pride of an actual king. We had stuffed Taco Bell Chihuahuas -- or, at least I did. And still, fast-food profits are plummeting faster than Jeb! Bush's political aspirations because of us. 

This has led to the businesses changing the way they do... well, business. As the "kale generation" we are increasingly focused on the quality of the food we use to fuel our bodies. And fast-food providers have a reputation that isn't exactly organic. But now, because of demand, these businesses are striving to make sure the food offered is healthier... incrementally at least. Chicken nuggets are still not diet food. 

But they're trying. Using organic, non-processed meat has become a marketing point for some companies, in place of scantily clad ladies (or I guess, in addition to). Even our beloved Happy Meals are getting a dose of fruit in place of fries

Chipotle Meal
Laura Murray/Thrillist

But changes aren't limited to existing fast-food menus. Consumer desire for higher-quality ingredients has directly led to the rise of "fast-casual" options: Shake Shack, Chipotle, Five Guys, Chop't, etc. Chipotle has even made its entire nut by standing against GMOs. The organic-leaning food is made with locally sourced ingredients that might even be good for you... so long as you don't get E.coli.

Companies have effectively elevated fast food, by making dependable, "real-restaurant-quality food," at a clip. And traditional fast-food companies are responding. Like Jordan bulking up to take on the Bad Boy Pistons, McDonald's and the like are focusing on producing food that can stand up to the competition.

burgers from McDonalds
Sarah Anderson/Thrillist

Aside from receiving pressure from health advocates and fast-casual competitors, the traditional fast-food industry is engaging in two separate arms races: one based around value, the other around shock value -- enticing gimmicks designed to renew interest in the brands. This is a good thing. Competition breeds excellence, after all. 

Every fast-food chain is reinventing and rebranding its value menus to up the ante in the high-stakes Hold 'Em, and each fast-food restaurant is pushing its chips to the center of the table. Fact is, the shit is getting real... Burger King and Wendy's are offering meals for $4. Carl's Jr. has one where a double cheeseburger comes with a side of chicken sandwich. Even Pizza Hut's getting in on this game. At Jack in the Box, two tacos are considered a "side item."

Just today, Taco Bell has announced a $1 breakfast menu -- very convenient for the sake of this article, and for consumers watching their wallets.

The fast-food world is bonkers right now, in the best way possible. 

On the gimmick side, the prime example is, of course, McDonald's all-day breakfast. Long has Mickey D's held its delicious McGriddles to a timed demarcation of 10:30am, but as this Adam Sandler movie demonstrates, the general public was not down with that. So the company made breakfast available at any time of day, and shit, it worked! Sales increased. And while this is a substantial menu improvement, it's just the tip of the shtick iceburg.

We're getting black burgers on Halloween, and Nashville hot chicken. We're getting freakin' hot dogs from the Whopper guys, and breakfast from a Mexican joint. Japan even got a 48-piece McNugget explosion to warm their Hello Kitty-lovin' hearts. We're getting all the things we craved, and we're getting nebulous wonders we never even considered. The fast-food world is bonkers right now, in the best way possible. 

There's a scene in The Wedding Singer -- another killer Adam Sandler film -- where the titular crooner crows, cries, and breaks down mid-performance, much to the delight of his professional competitor, Jon Lovitz, who utters the classic line: "He’s losing his mind, and I'm reaping all the benefits."

If the fast-food industry is Sandler's wedding singer, we are all Jon Lovitz, reaping all the benefits. 

[Insert creepy Lovitz smile here]
 
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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's actually in his own, personal golden age. Follow him: @wilfulton.