I’ll Have an Open-Face Nacho Sandwich With Extra Pork Fat and a Side of Mop Water, Please

AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Hannah Yoon

Why do chains like In-N-Out have secret menus? When the entire fast food industry relies on standardization for speed and consistency, what is the benefit of honoring complicated special requests? Do customers really need a grilled cheese with french fries on it? In her book excerpt at LitHub, cultural critic Alison Pearlman goes searching for answers to these surprisingly deep questions, peering between the proverbial buns, to examine the pros and cons of menu hacking. The answers, my friends, are hidden inside structurally unsound hamburgers made by overburdened workers. Please, enjoy your food, but also have some sympathy.

Restaurateurs who offer unlisted items also have several possible motives. They may want to exceed diners’ expectations, reward valued patrons, or prompt positive word of mouth for the restaurant. If those items were fixed, explicit, and promised to all, they wouldn’t serve these purposes. They’d also belong on the regular menu.

Keeping off-menu lists in the shadows also makes them easier to contain. If special ordering goes unchecked, it could jeopardize the economies of the regular menu. In essence, for secret menus to be socially and economically valuable, they must appear mysterious and negotiable. In dealings, however, not all follow the same rules.

So much depends on the way an establishment structures the relationship between restaurateur and diner. The kind of service a restaurant provides—not by vagaries of server personality or diner traffic, but at the planning level where the bones of a restaurant form—determines nearly everything about its off-menu deliberations. It can dictate how and why a menu deviation starts, who gets it, the composition of the item itself, and whether and how rumors about it spread. It can even decide the tattle’s tone. The chasm lies between standardization and personalization.

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