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News / Life / Food

Prices at fast-food restaurants soar

Companies cite rising costs for labor, ingredients

By Brooks Johnson, Star Tribune
Published: May 25, 2024, 5:46am

Fast food has long been a staple of American diets because it is, or was, so inexpensive.

Not so much anymore.

Over the past five years, prices for popular menu items at chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell have risen dramatically. The cost of a Big Mac or a Chalupa has doubled since 2019, according to archived and current pages of the Fast Food Menu Prices online tracker.

Restaurant inflation overall has been significant, though much tamer by comparison, with dining-out prices up 30 percent on average since 2019.

“My New Year’s resolution is to start taking packed lunches instead of getting fast food every day because it’s so ridiculously expensive now,” one Reddit user proclaimed earlier this year.

Between 2019 and 2024, the price of a medium fries order has more than doubled from $1.79 to $4.79, and the price of a Big Mac Meal has gone from $5.99 to $12.69, according to the tracker at Fastfoodmenuprices.com. A BLT Footlong at Subway has gone from $5.50 to $8.49. And a chicken burrito at Chipotle has gone from $6.50 to $10.70.

As consumer angst boils over, fast-food sales are declining as customers look elsewhere for convenient meals.

“Across almost all major markets, industry traffic is slowing,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts last month. “We know our customers are looking for reliable everyday value now more than ever.”

In response, McDonald’s recently announced it was adding a $5 value menu, and Wendy’s countered with a $3 breakfast deal. Both, however, will be around for just a limited time. About 90 percent of McDonald’s locations in the U.S. have an ongoing $4 meal deal.

Customers can also find deals in fast-food apps that companies have rolled out as loyalty programs; some offer low-priced or free items for signing up.

“We know how much it means to our customers when McDonald’s offers meaningful value and communicates it through national advertising,” McDonald’s USA said in a statement. “That’s been true since our very beginning and never more important than it is today.”

Subway, Chipotle and Taco Bell did not respond to a request for comment on higher prices.

Fast-food executives point to increased wages and higher costs for ingredients as the cause for higher drive-thru bills in recent years. Individual franchisees typically have control over their pricing, which can vary widely across the country based on local wages.

McDonald’s says its restaurant profit margins have returned to 2019 levels just as the price McDonald’s pays for burgers, buns and wrappers falls to pre-pandemic levels. It’s the higher wages that are now propping up prices, Kempczinski said.

Taco Bell has been able to sell more Crunchwraps, and keep profits afloat, despite higher prices for many menu items. About a third of recent transactions at Taco Bell now contain an item from the $3-and-under Cravings menu.

“You’re seeing some low-income consumers fall off in the industry,” said David Gibbs, CEO of Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and other chains. “We’re not seeing that at Taco Bell.”

Gibbs told investors earlier this month that KFC, meanwhile, “has been struggling.”

“We know how to bring that brand to life to connect with consumers around the world, and we have to do a better job of that in the U.S.”

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Chipotle is confident its “healthy, high-quality” ingredients will continue to attract customers even as its bowls and burritos surpass $10.

“As the consumer absorbs and figures out how they want to balance their budget, we think Chipotle will stay in the budget,” company CFO John Hartung said last month.

Prices at Dairy Queen, based in Bloomington, haven’t risen quite as sharply in recent years, according to archived menus, though different markets have different prices, largely based on wages.

“You have to adjust prices as input costs go up,” International Dairy Queen CEO Troy Bader said in a recent interview. “The challenge is to make sure we remain relevant to our guests and accessible to our guests as much as we possibly can. It’s about finding the right balance.”

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