Despite its list of 70-plus ingredients – or perhaps because of it – few things galvanize the appetite of the American public like the McRib, the boneless pork-based sandwich, which briefly blooms like a spring ephemeral on McDonald’s menus before disappearing each year. Last fall, after it was reported that almost half of McDonald’s stores would opt out of McRib season, some zealous fans created a dedicated McRib locator to crowdsource sightings of the pickle-topped white whale.
In addition to being a cult favorite, the McRib is the best-known iteration of what the world of quick-service food calls limited-time offers, or LTOs. LTOs are those occasionally wacky, promotional inventions that appear on the menus of fast-food chains and drift off in the wind like sodium-dusted dandelion fluff, often never to be seen again. From Sonic’s Ragin’ Cajun Burgers and Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Fries to McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes and Burger King’s Bacon Sundaes, the creation of LTOs is part art and part science. In general their aim is to stoke excitement for a brand and entice customers to make an extra visit without resorting to discounts or cannibalizing their ordinary regimens.