There are certain numbers that, to borrow a vogue 2018 term, are ASMR-inducing. The number three is satisfying. The number 10 is nice and round. And when it comes to fast food, five has been a reliable magic number, specifically as a price point. It’s right smack in the center of our base-10 system, psychologically neat, inexpensive but not so cheap that it feels unfulfilling.
But now there’s a new number in town: Four, and it’s hot hot hot. Steak ‘N Shake, which has long offered an under-$4 meal promotion, now has a new deal in which customers choose four menu items for $4—a cheeseburger, fries, cookie, and an additional side such as applesauce or a cup of chili.
If this pricing format sounds familiar, it’s because it was first introduced by Wendy’s in October 2015. Wendy’s innovation was in taking the standard sandwich-fries-drinks combo and adding four pieces of chicken nuggets, while keeping the price at $4. The promotion was an immediate hit for Wendy’s, and helped boost sales.
What’s really surprised me (and I’ve been writing about fast food on-and-off for the last decade) is how 4-for-4 has seeped into the popular conscience. Consuming fast food has long been more a matter of convenience than pride. But in casual conversations with friends, anytime fast food is brought up I’m shocked by how many people bring up their fondness for Wendy’s 4-for-4 deal. Last year, I wrote about Wendy’s late great Giant Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, and a significant portion of the 400 comments lavished praise on its 4-for-4 deal. It’s not even about the food, but the idea that this rigid combination of burger-fries-drink could has a bonus chicken nugget interloper. You’re paying for the nuggets, yes, but psychically it feels like it’s free. That’s a very powerful emotion to elicit especially in an industry where perception of value is important.
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The mojo that Wendy’s created is something all restaurant brands hope to acquire but few actually do: organic, word-of-mouth goodwill from customers. I don’t think Steak ‘N Shake will be the last to jump on the 4-for-4 wagon.