We all know them. The McRib. Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets. White Castle in general. There are just certain fast food items and restaurants that — for whatever reason — have gained cult status. Hordes of people around the globe are heavily dedicated to these items and will defend them to the grave.
Who cares that the McRib is made out of meat that’s a little sus? Who cares how much sugar is in a Starbucks frap? All that matters is that these menu items are available — and god forbid the restaurants in question take them off the menu, resulting in fanbase pandemonium.
But while you may scratch your head and wonder at why some fast food items have such a strong collection of followers, you likely have a few cult favorites of your own. Check out these 15 fast food items that have cult followings and see if you’re guilty of placing any of these delicious treats on a pedestal.
The McRib solves profit problems for McDonald’s
The elusive McDonald’s McRib appears every so often and then disappears. Fast food fans hear about it through the grapevine — "Did you hear that the McRib is back??" they’ll whisper to one another — and then everyone flocks to the drive-thru for that mystery pork patty slathered in sauce and topped with pickles and onions. Some will manage to eat several of the sandwiches before it disappears off the menu again, sometimes going away for seasons or an entire year at a time.
The McRib, according to one article by The Hustle, originally came about in 1979, when McDonald’s was looking for a solution to a chicken shortage. The restaurant served the sandwich on the regular menu until 1985, and then from 1994 until 2005. The article speculates that the McRib may only appear now when pork prices are down, as kind of a profit guarantee.
Maybe it’s that elusiveness that makes the McRib a cult classic. After all, the people want what they can’t have. The elusiveness has even spawned an online "McRib Locator" tool that allows fans to chime in when they see the McRib available at a McDonald’s location.
Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte spawned an entire industry
You can now find all kinds of weird, pumpkin spice-flavored items, from pumpkin spice salsa to pumpkin spice Spam. But the OG pumpkin spice treat is Starbuck’s fast food Pumpkin Spice Latte (the acronym is trademarked, by the way), which not only gave birth to an entire pumpkin spice industry but also a range of PSL memes. According to The Business of Business, over the last 17 years, the chain’s Pumpkin Spice Latte has generated billions of dollars — and 1.5 million Instagram posts.
Each year like clockwork, Starbucks rolls out the Pumpkin Spice Latte to eagerly awaiting fans and, in 2020, the chain rolled it out earlier than ever before, in August. While Starbucks originally, when introducing the drink in 2003, thought the drink was too over-the-top to appeal to its customer base, the heavily flavored beverage met instant success. Between 2003 and 2013, Starbucks sold 200 million PSLs, and the PSL, despite its seasonality, was Starbucks’ top-selling drink.
Now, you can find pumpkin spice on just about everything, PSLs are a bit of a "basic white girl" joke, and PSL season is a thing in of itself — but there’s no doubt this cult favorite is sticking around.
McDonald’s Shamrock Shake has remained a seasonal staple for 50 years
The McDonald’s Shamrock Shake is a legendary fast food dessert item shares some similarities with the McDonald’s McRib in that it pops up at certain times to much fanfare and then disappears without a trace. In fact, in order to keep followers in the know, the same folks behind the online McRib Locator tool also have made a Shamrock Shake locator tool.
Created in 1967, the Shamrock Shake is beloved by those who enjoy their sweet treats with a hint of mint, but wasn’t rolled out "officially" until 1970. McDonald’s reports that the shake was an instant hit and proudly acknowledges the shake’s cult status.
Love it or hate it, though, it’s worth recognizing that the Shamrock Shake is also responsible in helping build the very first Ronald McDonald House, which helps families with children with chronic illnesses, in Philadelphia. Shamrock Shake sales in 1974, spawned on by a few Philadelphia institutions, benefitted the building of the house, and the Ronald McDonald House has gone on to assist thousands of families around the country.
White Castle cheese sliders snag top spots in pop culture
White Castle’s following may just be the cultiest of all fast food cults. On the White Castle official timeline, you’ve got all kinds of pop culture appearances, from a spot in Saturday Night Fever in 1977 to musical nods from The Beastie Boys and The Smithereens in 1986 to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in 2004. And, of course, what menu item would be the top favorite other than the classic cheese slider?
It’s not just the media that hypes up White Castle and its delicious sliders. Us regular folk get in on the action, too, with true White Castle cult members who’ve truly shown their loyalty, calling themselves "bold cravers" and some making their way into the White Castle Hall of Fame. You have bold cravers with White Castle tattoos and bold cravers who’ve gotten married at White Castle. In the latter half of 2020, White Castle decided to even cater to their fans further by introducing a bigger carryout box that fits 20 sliders.
Is Chick-Fil-A’s growth based on fries, not chicken?
Chick-fil-A, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, is the third-largest fast food chain in the United States but still manages to rank highly for food quality, service, and speed. Since 2012, the Atlanta Business Chronicle says, Chick-fil-A has grown at a rate "almost too astounding to believe."
The secret? Nation’s Restaurant News says it’s the chain’s "cult following for its pickle-brined fried chicken sandwiches, always with the requisite two pickle chips, and always served with a warm and enthusiastic smile." And that list bit is important, as Business Insider points out that peerless customer service and dedicated employees are what’s created the most profitable fast food chain on a per-location basis.
Whatever the reason Chick-fil-A is succeeding, you can’t argue with the numbers. And while Chick-fil-A’s most recognizable menu item is likely its fried chicken sandwiches, that’s not currently the most ordered item on the menu. The restaurant says, instead, it’s the waffle fries that inspire cult-like behavior such as Chick-fil-A themed wedding cakes, entire Chick-fil-A wedding menus, Chick-fil-A wedding and senior photo shoots, and hundreds of customers who camp outside of new restaurant locations in an attempt to win free Chick-fil-A for one year.
Yes, we know … the Chipotle guac is extra
It’s become a meme by now. The Chipotle guac is extra. We all know. Ask for the guac and an employee will tell you, though, regardless. The saying has spawned t-shirts, Facebook groups, and entire self-help books. But beyond the entire culture that exists around Chipotle’s guacamole up-charges and those who want it regardless, employees have their own idea of what "the cult of Chipotle" actually is.
Employees took to Reddit to air their cult grievances, noting things like, "I am still waiting for my hooded burrito brothers and sisters to whisk me away into the night and lobotomize me with guac" and "The similarities between Chipotle and Mormonism are eerie. I’m still recovering from one cult. I don’t know if I could take another without having a meltdown." As could be expected, several loyal Chipotle employees came to the brand’s rescue.
In terms of fast food restaurants with cult followings, Chipotle honestly seems like the one that could be most cult-like all on its own — no help from the fans needed.
My kingdom for Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme?
In 2005, the Crunchwrap Supreme was little more than a seasonal fast food offering. The hexagon-shaped, tortilla-wrapped portable meal is filled with nacho cheese sauce, beef, sour cream, lettuce, and tomatoes, and it came in at under $2. And it was an instance success, quickly becoming Taco Bell’s most popular menu item, says QSR Magazine when reporting on the Crunchwrap Supreme’s move from seasonal item to the permanent menu in 2006.
These days, the Crunchwrap Supreme is a little more expensive ($3.69 on the Taco Bell website), but it still garners a good amount of loyalty. A simple search for the menu item on Twitter reveals few criticisms and a wide swathe of praise, with users commenting things like, "It’s 12:15 am and I’m thinking about a Crunchwrap Supreme" and "my kingdom for a Crunchwrap Supreme."
Additionally, copycat recipes for the Crunchwrap Supreme are rampant, both on Google and social sites such as Reddit and Pinterest.
Despite the hype, is In-N-Out’s animal-style really as sexy as it sounds?
It’s no secret that In-N-Out has a cult fast food following, but the cultiest of all their cult menu items is likely the animal-style burgers and fries, which, for supposedly being on the "secret" menu, isn’t really that secret. However, while an animal-style burger sounds somewhat provocative and sexy, there’s not much to this one. The special style was supposedly invented by some surfer and skate kids who were called "animals" for going off menu (and being loud and unruly in the store), but today, it’s seriously nothing crazy. It’s merely a standard In-N-Out burger with lettuce, tomato, mustard, pickle, grilled onions, and extra spread sauce. Animal-style fries, meanwhile, are a little more exciting, covered in sauce, cheese, and onions.
Still, reviewers — both professional and amateur alike — laud the animal-style burgers and fries. One writer notes, "You truly haven’t lived until you’ve had animal style fries (order them well-done)." Even some favorite faces praise In-N-Out’s animal-style products, including Anthony Bourdain and David Chang of Momofuku.
Starbucks Frappuccinos come in 36,000 flavor combos
The Starbucks Frappuccino turned 25 in 2020. The iconic fast food drink is a favorite during the summer, but you can also buy bottled versions of the drink in just about any grocery store or gas station. Launched in 1995, the cold and slushy drink far exceeded Starbucks’ expectations when first introduced.
"The first week of launch we were tracking sales, and it was something like 200,000 drinks the first week — when we were hoping for 100,000," one Starbucks rep said. "The next week it was 400,000 and the next it was 800,000. We had figured it would do well in Southern California — but it sold just as well in Chicago, Vancouver B.C., and Boston. It was huge." That summer, the Frappuccino made up 11 percent of Starbucks’ sales and, in 1996, the chain jumped on the chance to bottle the drinks and ship them out to retailers, making sure to trademark the name.
As of 2015, you could find the Starbucks frap in more than 36,000 flavors (thanks to a wealth of combinations), all over the world.
A righteous beginning spells success for McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish
Created to feed Catholics on Fridays during Lent, the Filet-O-Fish might not be the most popular menu item on McDonald’s menu in terms of sales, but it holds its own in terms of fast food items with a cult following. Rolled out nationwide in 1965 (as the first new menu item to make an appearance on the McDonald’s national menu), the sandwich first got its start in Ohio, where a franchise owner in a Catholic-heavy neighborhood wanted a way to boost sales. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the sandwich was almost instantly a hit in that Ohio neighborhood. In fact, in the first month of the Filet-O-Fish’s existence, 2,324 total fish sandwiches were sold, all at that one restaurant.
Today, the Filet-O-Fish still remains popular, and in early 2020, the new McDonald’s CEO introduced a creative twist on the Filet-O-Fish, seasoning with Old Bay, for testing in Mid-Atlantic states. About 300 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are sold each year, with about 25 percent of those sandwiches still sold during Lent.
A sweet and salty combination that’s difficult to replicate
Mention dipping fast food fries into a shake, and there’s a good chance that those in your vicinity will immediately think of the Wendy’s Frosty with fries combination. According to an interview with Shelly Thobe, director of culinary innovation at Wendy’s, the combination evolved on its own, with no help from the chain, but it’s one that stuck around, partially due to science.
"… It’s that salty-sweet, hot-cold dynamic that works so well," she says. "It’s activating so many of our senses. It’s taste, it’s texture — it confuses your taste buds … in a good way. It’s a crazy, intense experience."
In an effort to replicate this favorited experience, some chefs are getting creative, adding "upscale" versions of the Frosty-fries combo to their menus. Think soft serve topped with Magic Shell and Potato Stix or Nutella gelato topped with homemade chocolate syrup and homemade potato sticks.
Still, even with a lot of culinary prowess at your disposal, it’s difficult to beat the original combo. As one writer noted, "I don’t trust people who don’t see what a delicacy it is to dip Wendy’s fries in a Frosty."
Sonic’s cult favorite menu item is special, but mostly because of the water
Sonic’s cherry limeade easily has a cult fast food following, the fizzy, fruity, and only slightly — but just enough — citrus-y drink being a favorite on the menu for years and one that you’ll find tons of food bloggers attempting to recreate. However, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the original ingredients to see what’s really special in this favorited drink, because it might not just be what you think.
Cherry. Sprite. Lime. Ice. Could it be that last one makes all the difference?
According to a huge group of people, yes. While the limeade itself has been described as "altogether superior" and "intense, with a refreshing lack of malo, berry-like, perfumed with a hint of citric notes," the ice all on its own earns big marks across the board. There’s even a specially designed ice maker that was created to replicate Sonic’s ice and was crowdfunded on Indiegogo, with 6,500 individual backers raising more than $2.7 million to get their hands on this ice.
A newcomer on the cult fast food scene
Not all fast food items with a cult following have been around for decades. Take, for example, the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, which only debuted in August 2020. A pretty simple sandwich, all things considered, it features a hand-breaded filet, mayo, and pickles on a brioche bun. So why has it taken off and even completely sold out in some locations?
Some blame it on social media hype and online beef between Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s. Whatever the cause, the new menu item has gained loyal followers who are making the chicken sandwich switch from the Chick-fil-A cult on over to the Popeye’s faction.
As one franchise owner noted, "We’ve had lines out the door with guests clamoring for the new chicken sandwich. This weekend consisted of guests lining up all day, from open to close. In my 38 years as a Popeyes franchisee, I’ve never seen a product create such a frenzy."
Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets: back from the dead
In 2017, Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets were removed from the menu and … well, fast food fans were less than pleased. Turns out, though, some of those fans were celebrities, including several with large social media followings, like Chance The Rapper and Nicki Minaj. So, when Chance The Rapper tweeted in 2019 that the spicy chicken nuggets needed to make a comeback, millions of Twitter users responded — one of them being Wendy’s, who responded by saying that, if two million users liked Chance The Rapper’s tweet, "the people in charge" would bring the nuggets back from the dead.
So, as any good cult will do, the following came out in droves and, within two days, met their goal. Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets appeared back on menus later in 2019.
In 2020, McDonald’s may have noticed Wendy’s nuggets still on the menu and may have possibly tried to latch on to the hype with their own spicy chicken nuggets, but fans are holding vehemently to their Wendy’s favs.
Taco Bell Baja Blast just makes good sense
In 2004, Taco Bell and Mountain Dew teamed up to create Mountain Dew Baja Blast, a more tropical version of normal Mountain Dew, meant to pair up well with Taco Bell’s menu. By 2014, Baja Blast had become the second best-selling beverage at the restaurant, and 75 percent of soda drinkers literally said that they factored Baja Blast’s availability into their decision on whether or not they would dine at Taco Bell.
Thanks to the huge demand, Mountain Dew brought the drink into stores on a limited scale, with Mountain Dew even reporting that the top request the brand receives from consumers is to make the drink more widely available.
The fast food drink’s popularity makes sense when you think about both the Mountain Dew and Taco Bell brands’ customer bases. When the initial partnership was announced in 2004, the then-SVP and chief marketing officer for Pepsi-Cola North America said, "Over the years, Taco Bell has helped grow the Mountain Dew brand to the point where Taco Bell customers and Mountain Dew drinkers have become kindred spirits. They are active, energetic, and constantly looking for something they can call their own." The announcement also reported that Taco Bell customers are one and a half times more likely to drink Mountain Dew than the average American. Maybe because both customer bases are heavily gamers and teenage boys looking for cheap burritos and artificially colored drinks?