From McDonald's Szechuan Sauce to the Popeyes' sandwich: 6 out-of-control fast-food menu launches that shook America to its core

  • Popeyes' chicken sandwich recently took over America, sparking endless fast-food-centric debate and sending thousands of people to stores to try the new menu item. 
  • The chicken sandwich joins just a handful of launches that shook the country, with menu items going from a cheap lunch to cultural icons. 
  • From McDonald's Teenie Beanies to KFC's Double Down, here are the six biggest launches in fast-food history. 

Fast-food chains add new items to the menu all the time.

Executives spend months developing a new dessert or sandwich, testing the menu item, and then finally letting the general public try the fruits of their labor. Ideally, this will bring more customers to the chain and boost sales for a few months. 

Then there are the new menu items that shake the country to its core. 

Suddenly, this new menu item is all anyone wants to talk about. Social media devolves into a spiderweb of debates about chain restaurants. The New Yorker and The New York Times start publishing think pieces about fast food. Workers' lives are in shambles, as customers begin rioting amidst menu item shortages. 

The most recent juggernaut was Popeyes' chicken sandwich. But, there have been a handful of other menu items that have similarly possessed the American imagination. 

Here are six menu launches in American history that were bigger than anyone could have anticipated. 

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6 out-of-control fast-food menu launches
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6 out-of-control fast-food menu launches

McDonald's Teenie Beanie Baby Happy Meals

Year: 1997

Chaos: Significant, with collectors showing up and demanding Beanie Babies as soon as a new Happy Meal launched

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: None, but we have Wall Street Journal with "Teenie Beanie Babies Generate Big Buzz, Thrilling McDonald's." Someone who worked at McDonald's during the Beanie Baby boom reminded me of the frenzy that accompanied Teenie Beanie Baby drops when I was sought suggestions for out-of-control menu item launches on Twitter.

Happy Meals, accompanied by limited-time Teenie Beanie Babies, would swiftly sell out as Beanie Baby fanatics rushed to the chain at 10:30 am, when McDonald's began selling lunch. The partnership between McDonald's and Beanie Babies continued until the Beanie bubble burst around the turn of the millennium. 

Popeyes' Chicken Sandwich

Year: 2019

Chaos: Workers were being threatened by hungry customers as chicken sandwiches sold out

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: The New Yorker's Helen Rosner proclaimed: "Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America."

By far the biggest menu item launch of 2019, Popeyes chicken sandwich exploded on the scene thanks to a Twitter battle with Chick-fil-A. The chain's social media war for the title of best chicken sandwich kicked off endless debate — and sent thousands of people to Popeyes. 

Workers were exhausted and ready to quit, as restaurants quickly ran out of sandwiches. Supply which was supposed to last two months sold out in just two weeks. 

KFC's Double Down

Year: 2010

Chaos: Significant, though the buzz surpassed sales

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: The Times' food critic Sam Sifton reviewed the menu item, stalked by the "geek paparazzi" at Eater. His verdict: "a slimy and unnaturally moist thing, with flavor ginned up in a lab." America lost its mind when KFC rolled out a menu item that sandwiches cheese and bacon between two pieces of fried chicken.  "This is deep-fried madness," Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert said of the sandwich when it launched. "This is breaded insanity. It is a sandwich that lacks all sandwich-ness. It's like an edible Hieronymus Bosch painting wrapped in a paper straitjacket. If a sandwich has no buns, can it truly be called a sandwich?"

Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino

Year: 2017

Chaos: A few days of horror

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: 'Unicorn Food' Is Colorful, Sparkly and Everywhere" at The Times

The Unicorn Frappuccino was one of the first major made-for-Instagram menu items to break into the mainstream. To this day, Starbucks executives say it was the "most viral" drink launch of all time. 

The color-changing Frappuccino, which was only supposed to be available for four days, was also a nightmare for workers to make.

Fortunately, most stores sold out in just a day or two.  "We ran out of unicorn frappuccino ingredients after the first day....we sold 508 unicorn f----- frappuccinos in ONE F------ DAY!" one barista wrote.

McDonald's Szechuan Sauce

Year: 2017

Chaos: People were rioting in parking lots

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: Things got so bad, The Times had to write up the outrage. Fans of the cartoon "Rick and Morty" spent most of 2017 trying to force McDonald's to bring back Szechuan McNugget sauce.

When McDonald's obliged, with a "really, really limited" rollout of the sauce at a handful of locations, customers were furious at the limited supply.

In Wellington, Florida, police were called to one location.

In New York City, crowds of angry customers formed.  McDonald's eventually brought the sauce back to all locations.

But, when customers finally had a chance to try the sauce, many were disappointed that it didn't live up to the hype. 

Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Taco

Year: 2012

Chaos: Mitigated by the 15,000 extra workers 

New Yorker/New York Times coverage: The Times is on it: Looks Like a Taco, Tastes Like a Chip

The Doritos Locos Taco was so successful it essentially fueled Taco Bell's turnaround when it launched in 2012.  The chain sold more than a billion Doritos Locos Tacos in the first year, hiring an estimated 15,000 workers to keep up with demand. "The idea sounds really simple, but it has to deliver on two fronts: the classic Taco Bell taste and the distinctive Doritos experience," Taco Bell product developer Steven Gomez told Business Insider. "Unlike a tortilla chip, taco shells can't break, and have to properly hold the taco ingredients."

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