4 Is Fast Food's New Magic Number

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.

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.