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Hayden Donnell attempts to navigate the McDonald’s drive-thru (Image: Archi Banal)
Hayden Donnell attempts to navigate the McDonald’s drive-thru (Image: Archi Banal)

KaiDecember 2, 2023

Why are drive-thru menus so hard to read?

Hayden Donnell attempts to navigate the McDonald’s drive-thru (Image: Archi Banal)
Hayden Donnell attempts to navigate the McDonald’s drive-thru (Image: Archi Banal)

Drive-thru menus these days are confusing and scattershot, filled with a random assortment of doodles of food and vague adwords. It didn’t used to be this way, writes Hayden Donnell.

Kate was young, but she can still picture it clearly. She was in the back of the car as it pulled into a McDonald’s drive-thru. The menu in front of her was easily legible, even for a child. Every item was listed alongside its price. The experience was relaxing, like jumping into a cool, placid lake of the mind. “You knew what toy was available. What type of burger. No surprises. The occasional Friday night Happy Meal at McDonald’s was an exciting experience.”

Kate is now 38, and things are not just different; they’re exponentially worse. When she pulls into a drive-thru, she’s never quite sure what’s available. The specials are about as accessible as hieroglyphics on an ancient tomb wall. She hurriedly checks the McDonald’s website on her phone while waiting in line before just giving up and ordering the same thing she always does.

Her pain is imparted directly by a glowing digital board perched on the curb. Drive-thru menus, once a succinct, systematic summation of a fast-food restaurants’ offerings, are now a confusing jumble of words and pictures. Only a tiny, seemingly randomised portion of the menu is displayed at any one time. Many of the options are withheld altogether, available only in the deep reaches of the internet or the hazy halls of memory. A formerly exciting experience is “now a frazzled one”.

She’s far from alone in her frustration. Dozens of people contacted by The Spinoff confirmed they too are terrorised by the modern drive-thru experience. “I don’t even bother looking at the board, it’s too stressful. I’ll forget what I came to order. They may as well not have one tbh,” says Teresa. Estelle says it’s impossible to know how much her meal will cost these days because the pricing scrolls away before she can digest it properly. “I just never change my order at this point, wouldn’t have a clue what any of the new products are,” she says. That appears to be a common tactic. “Anxiety around this makes me memorise my order before I get there. Maccas is easy because it’s the same order every time: 6-pack nuggies meal,” says Emma.

The Spinoff put questions on this issue to KFC and McDonald’s, asking why their menus have changed from this:

An olden-day drive-thru menu from when the now-ancient Millennial generation was young.

To this:

A typical drive-thru menu at McDonald’s. A full quarter is taken up with the words “Hi there. We’ll be right with you.” It’s fucked.

“Thank you for contacting KFC New Zealand,” said KFC New Zealand. “We will share your feedback with our Marketing team. They are continually reviewing feedback to improve and we appreciate you taking the time to share this with us.” When told The Spinoff’s email was a media query, KFC stopped replying.

McDonald’s was more helpful. In a preliminary response, its spokesperson Simon Kenny said the basic reason drive-thru designs have changed is because the chain’s menu has expanded drastically. He helpfully mocked up what a menu would look like if it used the older format today: 

McDonald’s HQ’s visualisation of a potential modern-day menu using the chain’s old style.

A more fulsome statement followed later, saying, in essence, that the world has changed and The Spinoff should get used to it. Not only is McDonald’s’ menu more extensive, drive-thrus themselves have been tweaked to maximise efficiency and move customers through quickly. Speed is now the aim of the drive-thru game. “People’s expectation of how quickly they can order and be served has increased, and in turn customers tell us for them, drive-thru is the channel they use when they generally know what they want, and they want it fast,” Kenny said. 

That hasn’t put people off, he added. About 60 to 70% of customers use a drive-thru where one is available. “We don’t get many complaints about not showing a full menu in drive-thru, especially with the changes made in store to accommodate those who want to use the kiosks.”

McDonald’s may not get a lot of complaints, but The Spinoff is flush with them. They come from scores of people suffering a gnawing unease. Anxiety is bubbling in their psyche, and it boils over every time their car pulls up at a digital billboard emblazoned with a massive picture of a McMuffin.

Maybe it would be difficult to design a menu that doesn’t imbue these complainants with panic and disorientation, given McDonald’s ballooning set of offerings. But with all due respect, the correct response to this kind of logistical difficulty is to find ways to fit all your menu items into the space available, not to fill your digital board with random doodles and words of affirmation.

Maybe the children are the problem. Gen Z has never gone through the zen-like experience of pulling into a drive-thru and calmly ordering from a fulsome list of options. Generation Alpha are still babies and can neither drive nor make a formal complaint. The problem can’t be that I – I mean The Spinoff – is old. No, The Spinoff is still young. McDonald’s needs to fix this. It needs to take The Spinoff back to when the world was fizzing with hope and possibility. It needs to restore the past, which was better on an objective level and not just because The Spinoff’s back didn’t hurt. And while they’re at it, can they bring back apricot pies? The Spinoff misses them.

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