The Etiquette Rule You Shouldn't Break When Ordering From A Secret Menu

Once upon a time, ordering off secret menus was largely limited to the In-N-Out burger chain, and if you didn't live on the West Coast, you were out of luck. No Animal Style for you. But fortunately for those of us who love arcane hacks and secret menu items — and really, who doesn't love being in on a secret? — the concept has taken off in recent years and has been embraced by fast food chains nationwide.

In some cases, of course, it's just off-menu items that have been shared on social media, and not everybody knows about. That doesn't make it any less fun to enjoy, however. What's not as fun is trying to order these items in a way that doesn't make you feel incredibly self-conscious or weird; like when the food item is so secret not even the restaurant's employees seem to know about it.

If you've ever wondered whether there's an etiquette to follow when ordering off secret menus, the answer is sorta, kinda. There are definitely some general guidelines and one major no-no. Don't go off-menu when a restaurant is super busy, or you're in a drive-thru lane with a line of cars behind you. Since secret menu items often require a bit of explanation, and may also take longer to prepare, you could be making life more difficult for restaurant employees, not to mention other customers.

The secret etiquette of secret menu items

Being inconsiderate to others should be avoided. In fact, its avoidance is a foundational principle of etiquette, as attested by no less an expert than Emily Post. So by all means take advantage of hacks and secret menu items at McDonald's, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, and other popular chains, but do so with consideration and a few other basic etiquette rules in mind. Yes, there is such a thing as fast food and even drive-thru etiquette, and principles from both are in play when ordering from secret menus.

The number one rule, of course, is not to order secret menu items when the restaurant is busy. But you should also be prepared to explain what it is you want, and how it's prepared. Not every fast food employee is experienced with their chain's secret menu items, so don't be surprised if you have to provide details. For instance, if you're in the mood for Taco Bell's not-so-secret but still off-menu Cheesarito, you should know the ingredients of this legendary snack item (tortilla, melted cheese, scallions, and your favorite sauce, of course) before you order.

Also, it may be a secret hack or menu item, but that doesn't mean you have to be conspiratorial about it. Just be polite and order the secret item as you would any other menu offering. If the employee doesn't know what it is, or says it's not available, then order something else instead.

Why secret menu etiquette matters

Knowing what it is you're ordering is important for a couple of reasons. One, some secret menu items don't really exist. Starbucks, for example, is famous for its secret hacks and menu items. But a few years back, one of its baristas claimed these were all just invented by people online. There's a big difference, obviously, between ordering something that exists — albeit not officially — and just asking restaurant employees to make you something that's not on the menu. That's not considerate, and Emily Post definitely would not approve.

Two, knowing the degree of difficulty involved in making your secret menu item of choice can help you determine when or if it's appropriate to order. Remember, the relevant etiquette rule is not to be inconsiderate to employees or to inconvenience other customers. Fast food restaurants, whether they admit it or not, love the idea of secret menu items because they create interest and discussion on social media. It's free advertising, essentially. But that doesn't mean their employees are familiar with these items or have been trained to make them.

Researching secret menu items is thus a good way to ensure that what you're ordering is more than simply a social media fever dream. It's actually real and available. Also, you'll know whether it's a reasonable request or not, and you'll be able to explain the ingredients and preparation method, if necessary.