Chili’s and Applebee’s woo inflation-weary diners as fast food prices continue to climb

It’s a soar point.

Fast food lovers have been watching helplessly as the price of a burger and fries climbs ever higher — combo quaffers in NYC are now paying as much as $13.89 plus tax for a Big Mac pack, not to mention a whopping $13.99 for a Whopper meal at some local Burger King locations.

Are they looking for their fix at the wrong restaurant chains?

As prices rise at McDonald’s, restaurants that might not have been seen as their direct competitors see opportunity. AP

Chili’s seems to think so.

The Dallas-based home of the baby back (baby back, baby back, baby back) rib may traditionally have been considered a pricier sit-down upgrade over the usual quick and easy franchise food.

But inflation’s a funny thing — Chili’s current “3 for Me” combo, which includes a burger, fries, an app and a bottomless drink, beats the offer at a Big Apple Golden Arches, going for as low as $10.99, Business Insider reported.

And these burgers appear to be able to hold their own against the tried-and-true drive-thru faves — Chili’s new half-pound of smashed meat, topped with lettuce, pickles and Thousand Island dressing, christened the Big Smasher, bests McDonald’s on heft and value, while also evoking the beloved Big Mac, executives for the chain say. (One Big Mac patty is 3.2 ounces, pre-cooked.)

“We’ve always had incredible burgers on our menu, but for about a year now, we’ve been hearing more and more frustration from fast-food fans over rising costs,” Chili’s director of culinary, Brian Paquette, told the outlet.

Chili’s isn’t the only chain that’s looking like a better deal nowadays — Applebee’s 2 for $25 combo dinner is now cheaper than a Big Mac Meal for two in places like New York City. Getty Images

Paquette said that the Big Smasher reflects a desire to offer “some of the favorite drive-thru flavors” on Chili’s menu. While it costs $12.99 a la carte, it’s available as part of the $10.99 “3 For Me” deal.

Chili’s isn’t the only casual dining brand happy to lure away cash-strapped customers hungry for more, as chains like McDonald’s have raised prices by approximately 10% in the last two years, according to the company — and 100% in just a decade, according to an appetite-killing report.

Applebee’s, for example, has their “2 for $25” meal deal, which includes an appetizer to share or two side salads, plus two entrees.

Red Lobster’s “Shrimp Your Way” may cost a little more, but still represents good value, with three shrimp dishes for $25 and two for $21.

A new burger at Chili’s, the Big Smasher, recalls the Big Mac but offers more meat and better value, some say. Christopher Sadowski

Outback Steakhouse thrilled thrifty types recently with a limited Steak & Lobster deal, from just $19.99, including a 6 oz. sirloin steak, lobster tail and two side dishes.

Chili’s and Co. certainly have their work cut out for them — McDonald’s may now be wildly expensive in some states and cities, but the company still reported a year-over-year sales increase of 8.7% in 2023, BI reported.

But the new low-cost come-ons appear to be moving the needle, if only slightly — trade publications like Restaurant Business News and Nation’s Restaurant News have recently reported a slight uptick in takers for the shameless and tasty grabs at market share.

Chili’s honchos say they’re aware of the dangers of using discounts to build a customer base, and that the “3 For Me” promotion wasn’t created with fast food restaurants in mind — not that there’s anything wrong with people seeing it that way.

“Fast food and drive-thru prices have gone up,” an exec told a reporter. “I think that’s just the start of the conversation, and the sticker shock is real.”

In a statement given to BI, a McDonald’s spokesperson said that the chain “always strives to strike the right balance of value for money.”

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