Bizarre Secrets Your Favorite Fast Food Chains Don’t Want You To Know
Almost every fast food restaurant has dirty little secrets. Some of them, you may already know, like many of the fast food options out there are high in calories and fat. Plus, a lot of chains are infamous for paying their workers low wages and having high turnover rates. And the old cliche of a disgruntled worker spitting in your food? It’s definitely happened (via Reader’s Digest).
According to Reddit user comments by previous fast food employees, the controversial shenanigans that go on at fast food joints usually depend on the management and what part of the world the restaurant is located in. Some former employees shared stories of food falling on the ground and being told by management to serve it anyway, and one Subway customer watched an employee cut her finger and still attempt to make a sandwich, with no gloves or band-aid. What other secrets are lurking in the darkness that fast food chains really don’t want you to know?
The ice is dirty
Next time you visit your favorite fast food joint, you might want to think twice about getting ice in your drink. The fact that ice machines in fast food restaurants are dirty is not new news. According to Insider, a 12-year-old student brought this information to light in 2012 after a school science experiment in which they compared ice from five different fast food machines to toilet water. The majority of the time, the ice samples contained more bacteria than the toilet water ones.
And in 2013, The Daily Mail repeated the experiment, this time looking at ten different restaurants in the UK. The results? McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Starbucks, Cafe Rouge, and Nando’s all had higher levels of bacteria in their ice when compared to the toilet water. If you can stomach it, this viral 2021 TikTok video shows a machine technician highlighting the water inside of an ice machine. In the video, he says, "A lot of times people go to a restaurant and get sick, and they think it’s food poisoning, or their food made them sick. Let me tell you this — there’s a chance it was their ice that got you sick."
Drink machines are rarely cleaned
Apparently, soda fountain machines are not cleaned that often either. In reality, soda machines are supposed to be cleaned daily, but it often doesn’t pan out that way. It’s so common to spot mold growing inside the drink machines because it’s so difficult to clean every nook and crevice, so fast food workers often avoid them. In fact, a former Del Taco employee told Buzz Feed, "My store would forget to clean the nozzles for weeks until a customer would say something." They recommend sticking your finger inside the soda machine nozzle to check for black mold before using it.
Turns out, the juice machines aren’t any better. According to a previous fast food employee: "When I worked at McDonald’s, the orange juice machine was only cleaned when an employee would have some and say, ‘This tastes like mold.’ I was usually the lucky one."
The grill marks on your burger are fake
You may not have ever thought about it before, but those perfectly-spaced grill marks on your fast food burger or chicken breast sandwich are not real. Fast food wouldn’t be delivered fast if it was made fresh on a grill. But those fake grill marks sure make the food taste better. That’s because "grill marks on chicken breast give the bland product contrast and texture. It also visually conveys heat and charred flavor to our brain, all things that make the item appealing and can trigger hunger," Claudia Ficca, a food stylist, told Thrillist.
So where do the grill marks come from? A rotary brander is a machine that delivers high-heat grill marks to meat before they are frozen and shipped to your local fast food joints. Some companies even inject the meat with artificial ingredients to make it taste like it just came off the grill (via Food Republic). Many fast food restaurants use these techniques, however, not all of them do — you can visit Burger King, El Pollo Loco, and Flame Broiler to get the real deal.
Many foods have been sitting under heat lamps all day
This may seem like common sense, or maybe you have heard this before, but it’s a good idea to avoid visiting any restaurant — even a fast food one — around closing time. Not only is it annoying to the workers, but you will likely be served food that is not fresh and has actually been sitting under heat lamps for a long time. In fact, this happens in fast-food pizza joints all the time, according to previous employees on Reddit.
And in most fast food chains, after something is cooked, it’s usually put inside a holding cabinet with heat and a timer. Once the timer goes off, the food is to be tossed and replaced with fresh food. However, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the timer is ignored, restarted, and the food is just reheated (via Reader’s Digest). The best time of day to visit a fast food joint is when it’s really busy because food is usually ordered up faster than it can go into a cabinet. That means if you want fresh fast food, go during the lunch or dinner rush — usually mid-afternoon or evening.
The McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish is rarely made fresh
Speaking of food sitting under heating lamps; the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish may be one of the top contenders, according to a Reddit thread that asked: "Restaurant chain workers, what dish should we not order and why?" Turns out, many McDonald’s employees admitted that the Filet-O-Fish would sit around in a heated cabinet for hours, with one worker exclaiming, "I can promise you that filet of fish is not fresh by any stretch of the imagination."
Another Reddit user and McDonald’s customer said they watched their Filet-O-Fish be microwaved and then delivered to them. And a different employee said, "McDonald’s kept the fish sandwiches in a super dirty cabinet and spent like five seconds cooking it when it actually gets ordered." It’s a bad sign when a fast food employee won’t even order something from their place of work, let alone advises others to do the same.
There are tricks to ordering the freshest fries
However, there are tips and tricks to getting the freshest fast food fries possible. For one, if you order them without salt, they will have to be specially made since it’s not ordered very often. If you still want salt, you can always add it after you get your order, but just don’t let the employees see you do it. That’s because making fries without salt is a lot of work — the workers have to clean every piece of equipment on top of frying a fresh batch up just for you (as per Finance Buzz). One worker told Buzz Feed: "I work at McDonald’s, and if you order fries with no salt, we hate you… The problem is they can’t touch the fry receptacle and we have to pour scorching hot, boiling oil-covered fries directly into the fry box. I have burn scars. We all have burn scars."
If you don’t mind consuming the extra sodium and are just concerned about getting fresh food, you could just make everyone’s lives easier by asking for a fresh batch. Being polite and asking nicely can go a long way. You may have to wait longer for your order, but it will be worth it for everyone involved.
The real food will never look like the commercials
Fast food commercials always make the food look so deliciously good, while the real thing can never really quite compare. That’s because most photos and videos of fast food in ads are touched up by airbrushing or professionals, just like real-life human models are post-photoshoots (via Reader’s Digest). In fact, food stylists have even admitted to using eyeliner to fill in the fake grill marks on meat patties for their big photo-op (via Thrillist).
While this isn’t super surprising — fast food commercials are created to entice and encourage us to go out and buy the food — some fast food chains have been sued over this misrepresentation. For example, Burger King was sued over false advertising with complaints that the real burgers were considerably smaller than what was shown in the commercials (via NBC News). The plaintiffs claim that Burger King’s Whopper appears 35% bigger in ads compared to the real ones, with double the amount of meat it actually comes with. In these cases, oftentimes fast food companies will settle with monetary compensation to avoid the bad publicity.
Almost every fast food joint has been sued
In reality, a lot of fast food companies have been sued over something, many of them for false advertising. According to The Washington Post, Wendy’s and McDonald’s have also been sued for overstating the amount of toppings and the size of the beef patties for nearly every menu item in their current advertisements. And Subway was sued after a teenager who ordered a $5-foot-long actually measured his sandwich and found it to come out to about 11 inches.
In 2019, Taco Bell was sued after customers were charged more than $5 for the restaurant’s highly promoted $5 Chalupa Craving Boxes (via Reader’s Digest). A couple was asked for $12.18 at checkout for two boxes — and that was before taxes. The couple sued for compensation for their time commuting to Taco Bell as well as the gas they used. Other examples include Starbucks, which was sued over putting too much ice in their iced drinks, and a Canadian dad who sued McDonald’s for marketing Happy Meals to his underage children.
The drive-thru always comes first
The next time you are waiting in a fast food joint for your food and it seems like people in the drive-through are being served before you are — well, that’s because they are. One fast food service employee told Buzz Feed: "I worked at Wendy’s and McDonald’s. If you want the fastest service, especially during rush hour, go to the drive-thru. Since they time us on how long cars wait, we always prioritize the drive-thru."
Another fast food worker confirmed with Reader’s Digest that they do indeed get timed on how fast they can move cars through the drive-through. As a matter of fact, once you place your order, the workers often have two minutes to get your food in your hands. Otherwise, the computer screen turns red and alerts the manager, who will check on why things are moving so slowly. So if you’re in a rush, always opt for the drive-thru.
McDonald’s french fries contain questionable ingredients
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you probably don’t frequent fast food restaurants since it can be hard to find a menu item that fits your dietary restrictions. But french fries always seemed like a safe bet — until you read the ingredient list. When McDonald’s first opened, their french fries were cooked in lard. Over time, they switched to using vegetable oil, but the fries didn’t quite taste the same.
So the company started adding natural beef flavor to the mix to solve the problem. Upon this discovery, customers in India sued McDonald’s, who were outraged that they were unknowingly consuming beef, which was against their religious beliefs (via Treehugger). McDonald’s ended up paying $10 million in settlement fees and reluctantly changed their recipe for all McDonald’s locations in India, but not in other countries. Despite all this controversy, the french fry recipe is still the same everywhere else in the world. A quick glance at the french fries ingredient list on the company website — clearly states both natural beef flavor and milk as ingredients.
Fast food salads may not actually be healthy
We have been trained to assume salads are a healthy food choice, but when they’re coming from a fast food restaurant, this may not always be the case. This is because fast food salads contain hidden calories in the toppings and dressings. For perspective, a classic Big Mac has 550 calories and 30 grams of total fat. However, a Wendy’s taco salad packs 47 grams of fat and over 700 calories (via Business Insider).
Even if you opt for grilled chicken over fried in an effort to eat healthier, there still might be hidden calories. According to one Reddit user and former McDonald’s employee: "To keep it from sticking to the grill, we use three squirts of liquid margarine on the bottom of it. To keep it juicy, once we’ve lain the frozen blocks of chicken, three more squirts of liquid margarine are applied to the tops."
Wendy’s chili is made from repurposed meat
Have you ever wondered if your favorite fast food chili is made from old retired meat? Your hunch might be correct. Wendy’s is well known for repurposing dry, unsold burger patties — the ones sitting under heat lamps for too long — and making them into chili. The practice reduces food waste and saves the restaurant the cost of buying more fresh beef. However, these dried burgers don’t exactly crumble into tender chili meat. So, they are boiled to rehydrate them and mashed up into a finer consistency. Some customers, including ex-Wendy’s employees, find the whole process less than appetizing.
One worker told BuzzFeed: "One of my first jobs was at a Wendy’s. I was horrified to find out that all the old, overcooked, and stale burger patties got chopped up and added to the chili. It’s just a never-ending chili that way. When there’s too much beef, they just add the mix, and vice-versa. Haven’t had chili at any restaurant since."
There are secret money saving hacks
When it comes to ordering fast food, don’t order dishes with extra ingredients or toppings. According to previous fast food workers, anytime you say the word "extra," they are then required to put it into the register and charge you for it (via Reader’s Digest). Instead, nicely ask workers to make sure you get plenty of a certain ingredient. In contrast to the rude customers they typically encounter, your kindness might be all they need to accommodate your request.
There are also many other fast food money-saving hacks out there. Sometimes, a clever ordering trick can save you a few bucks. For example, one savvy fast food lover tells BuzzFeed, "Instead of getting a Big Mac, I get a McDouble with Mac sauce and lettuce. It’s essentially the same, but cheaper and without the extra bun slice."
Pay attention to the calendar, because many fast food places will offer free food or promotions during national food holidays. A lot of chains will also give you free food or an impressive discount on your birthday. And, sign up for rewards programs and download restaurants’ apps to earn points and access to exclusive promotions.
Always ask for a receipt at McDonald’s
Another great fast food service hack is to always ask for a receipt when visiting McDonald’s. Many people don’t know this, but McDonald’s gets secret shoppers all the time. The secret shoppers, also often referred to as "mystery shoppers" or "Gapbusters," are people who come in to rate their whole fast food experience, including the quality of the food and service they get. These customers are actually paid to do this — and get reimbursed for the food that they order — therefore, they always ask for a receipt.
McDonald’s employees know this, so they are always on the lookout for people that ask for receipts to make sure that they deliver high service and receive great ratings. It’s not always a guarantee, but there’s a pretty good chance that if you ask for a receipt, you will get the fastest delivery, the freshest food, and the best customer service.