photo by Endof

June 12, 2023: a day of glory. Or, if you’re like me — an educator trying to make numbers and literature somehow more appealing than a mysterious purple ice cream treat — a day of horror. I’m talking about the Grimace Shake, McDonald’s month-long Limited Time Offer (LTO) that celebrated the company’s milkshake-loving promotional character from June 12 to July 9, 2023.

The Grimace Shake is an example of what Lizzy Freier, managing editor at the food service consultant company Technomic, calls “novelty items” — products new to the scene and purchased and promoted by consumers purely out of curiosity. This kind of marketing is far from new, but it reached unforeseen heights of implementation in 2023 and is projected to grow even further in 2024. Starbucks, Taco Bell, and hundreds of other chain restaurants have tried their hand at offering LTOs, and given how successful the campaigns have been, we’re only going to be seeing more and more of them.

The fear of missing out (or, as you may have heard your purple-slurping student or child say, FOMO) is perhaps the biggest reason why these campaigns are so successful. On social media, a single post can reach millions of viewers in minutes, spawning an informative yet pressurized rush to understand just what the fuss is all about and, in effect, making it that much more of an anomaly to not know what the fuss is all about. This instantaneous, frenzied response to the new and noteworthy is what companies like McDonald’s have learned to induce through their marketing strategies, and it’s why LTOs are as profitable as they are.

But curiosity is not alone in its commandeering of American consumption crazes; it has a near and dear friend: convenience. According to Freier, over the past couple years and into 2024, takeout and delivery fly high above dining-in as options for enjoying meals not prepared at home. This is due to the fact that eating out at full-service restaurants may easily incur additional costs such as tips and beverages. This makes takeout in particular the more economic option and delivery appealing insofar as, while it might mirror the cost of dining-in with the added fees of third-party delivery services, it provides the comfort and convenience of staying home — something we grew accustomed to doing in the height of the pandemic.

In this way, dining-in is increasingly viewed as an occasion rather than a regular occurrence. Thus, both limited- and full-service restaurants are having to find ways to be innovative with their menus, such as incorporating different cuisines, restrategizing their pricing, and experimenting with new ingredients from within traditional recipes.

“What’s difficult is appealing to adventurous and nonadventurous consumers alike,” Freier said on an episode of “The Food Institute” podcast. Adjustments in how people make food-related decisions will inevitably change how companies provide food-related options.

Freier added, “I think we’ll be seeing increased transparency and authenticity in food service language in general. It’s about meeting customers where they’re at.”

Who knows if we’ll ever see the Grimace Shake again? If it’s anything like the Shamrock Shake, we’ll be able to track its return to the day. Me, I’ll keep holding out for the yearly return of Starbucks’ postholiday Pistachio Latte.

Whatever the LTO may be, and whatever the FOMO attached to it, the food service industry at large has the American consumer hopelessly hooked.

To comment, email your remarks to
(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2024
February 5, 2024
Subscribe to Hoard's Dairyman Intel by clicking the button below