Once 11 items strong, the nationally available menu now reportedly only contains two drinks.
Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When talking about promotions at chain restaurants, we’re used to hearing disclaimers to the effect of “price and participation may vary.” As a result, if you are lucky enough to be in somewhere like Hawaii or Times Square or an airport, you’ve come to expect that you might not be able to get unlimited tater tots or whatever the deal may be. And yet, sometimes price and participation can vary quite significantly, even on well-publicized offers.

To wit, in 2017, the return of McDonald’s Dollar Menu was a huge story in the fast food world. It set off a resurgence in the value menu wars with its promise of items priced at either $1, $2, or $3. One of the biggest talking points was that, for the first time, Happy Meals would appear on the menu for $3. Now, granted, McDonald’s never specified just how long Happy Meals would be a staple of the new Dollar Menu, but less than a year later, the fast food-focused site Brand Eating noticed that Happy Meals had been dropped from the Dollar Menu in some locations.

“The $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu was created to bring our customers better value with the intent to flexibly rotate menu items on and off over time,” a McDonald’s spokesperson told us at the time. “Some markets may even offer slight variations to the menu that best fit the preferences of their local customers.”

Well, speaking of slight variations, last month, McDonald’s announced that it would be “enhancing the $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu in early January to enable greater flexibility at the local market level.” The statement continued, “Local markets and owner/operators will have the opportunity to offer delicious food and beverages at a compelling value on the $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu, while also meeting the tastes and preferences of their local customers.”

Of course, “enhancing” is in the eye of the local customer depending on how the menu has changed. According to Brand Eating, on a national level, the only two items left on the Dollar Menu are $1 any size soft drinks and $2 small specialty McCafe beverages — a significant downsizing from the approximately 11 items the Dollar Menu debuted with not much more than a year ago. Every other item is up to individual operators.

That doesn’t mean that the Dollar Menu is own to only two items: To the contrary, most restaurants appear to still have plenty of other options. However, the type and total number of items, as well as the pricing, differs significantly depending on where you check. In fact, Brand Eating poked around and discovered a location in Cleveland, Ohio, that even had a “Dollar Menu” that offered up increments of $1, $1.50, $2, and $3.50.

But regardless of how you feel about these changes, it’s not like McDonald’s headquarters is in an admirable position (outside of making those big McDonald’s bucks). The company has thousands of franchisees to make happy, and tensions have apparently been running pretty high. Literally yesterday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that hundreds of operators were looking to form a National Owners Association to give them more leverage against corporate. One of their grievances: They don’t have enough control over pricing. Who knew a $1 McChicken could cause such headaches?