It’s High Time For Restaurants To Pay Attention To Marijuana

Photo Credit: David Hadley

Marijuana has the ability to impact nearly every aspect of the food world. From restaurant brands reaching their cannabis-friendly customers on social media to THC-laced concoctions competing with established restaurants. Certainly, there’s money in marijuana, even if it’s just benefiting from customers who come in with the munchies. But, while more than half the country approves of legalization in some form, there’s still concern from retailers about alienating the rest of the population or stumbling into a legal gray area.

“It’s a touchy subject, but it makes sense to understand a growing consumer group,” said Jeffrey Stein, a vice president at Consumer Research Around Cannabis.  “The cannabis industry is really only now getting sophisticated in terms of using consumer data.”

His organization, along with the Green Market Report, a publication covering the cannabis industry, studied where cannabis users eat. Their online survey, which was completed by just over 36,000 people in 32 markets, asked what fast food restaurants legal marijuana users had eaten at in the past four weeks.

Forty-three percent of those surveyed prefer McDonald’s, according to the study, released in September of 2017. That high number probably correlates to the vast number of markets McDonald’s operates in, said Stein. The company operates about 14,000 domestic locations.

The second most preferred fast food spot was Taco Bell, accounting for only about 18% of the cannabis consumers. Wendy’s came in third place, Burger King fourth and Subway ranked fifth. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby’s, Chick-Fil-A, Jack-In-The-Box and Carl’s Jr followed rounding out the top ten restaurants in that order.

Mindful of the munchies

Fast food companies aren’t ignoring their customers’ cravings. Many chains, including Denny’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill, have nodded to their cannabis consumers on social media. But they shied away from a formal interview with Nation’s Restaurant News on the topic.

This approach fits with how Stein’s customers use his research. “There’s a way to utilize the data without being overt,” he said.

But other chains have taken a more direct approach.

In January, California-based Jack in the Box released the Merry Munchie Meal, a limited-time offer, which was a partnership with the cannabis-media-and-lifestyle platform Merry Jane. The meal, which included fries, onion rings, tacos, churros, chicken strips and a drink, cost $4.20 (a nod to April 20th, the unofficial cannabis holiday). The meal was available in select Long Beach, California, locations.

“Jack’s Munchie Meals have been successful for us because of the authenticity of how we speak to our customers,” said Jack in the Box chief marketing officer Iwona Alter in a news release.

“This partnership is one more way for us to connect with them — whether you’re at a concert, up late playing video games or pulling an all-nighter. We are about welcoming all of our guests, no matter what they’re craving or why they’re craving it.”

And a few years prior, Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s released the Mile High Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit on April 20, 2015.

The news release was titled “It’s Wake and Bake Time at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.” Although, parent company CKE Restaurants Holdings seemed to suggest the title had more to do when their biscuits were baked: “Dedicated biscuit makers arrive in the early-morning hours to prepare and roll the buttermilk biscuit dough by hand, and bake the biscuits to their signature fluffy texture and golden-brown color,” the release read.

Presumably, customers were in on the joke, though.

But McDonald’s Corp was less than amused when a franchise in New Mexico, near the Colorado border where recreational marijuana is legal, posted a billboard with an image of a breakfast burrito and the text “Usually, when you roll something this good, it’s illegal!” The billboard was taken down soon after it gained wide notice. McDonald’s wrote in a statement “this local franchise’s billboard does not meet our standards.”