For months, the top news about fast food chains like  McDonald's, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and others has been mainly focused in two areas:   

  1. The "chicken wars" between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A
  2. Meat alternative sandwiches like Burger King's Impossible Whopper and the much smaller test of the McDonald's "PLT" in Canada 

You could add the news about McDonald's buying tech companies and trying to revolutionize the drive-through. However, it's the menu changes that really drive customer reactions.

When it comes to the menu, McDonald's is now playing its annual trump card -- and thus stealing back some of the thunder. 

It comes with the burger giant's announcement that it's bringing the McRib sandwich back starting next week, to 10,000 McDonald's restaurants across the United States.

Forced scarcity

Most years, the McRib was pretty tough to find, but McDonald's has about 14,000 U.S. locations, so odds were decent of finding it. The company also set up a locator website.

It's tough to pin down exactly why McDonald's does it this way, rather than simply making it available all year. Fans know it's coming -- it varies from early October this year, to late October last year, to December a few years ago. 

Most outside theories center on the idea that forced scarcity results in greater demand each year.

Also, there are questions about whether there's a sufficiently reliable supply chain to provide enough pork -- about seven million pounds in order to make the 30 million McRib sandwiches sold a year. (That data's a decade old, the most recent I can find. It might be higher still now.)

For 2019, there's also the added factor that President Trump's trade war with China has introduced volatility, and at times reduced prices, into the pork market. (That's part of the reason why so many fast food restaurants have been adding bacon to their menus this year.)

"Restructured meat"

As NPR reported a few years ago, the McRib -- which is designed to imply boneless ribs even though it's actually pork shoulder -- has its roots in a food technology called "restructured meats."

It works a lot like sausage-making, according to Roger Mandigo, an emeritus University of Nebraska animal science professor who is credited with coming up with the technique. 

"Instead of just stuffing pork meat inside a casing," NPR reported, "Mandigo used salt to extract proteins from the muscle. Those proteins become an emulsifier 'to hold all the little pieces of meat together.'"

(Within McDonald's, Rene Arend, McDonald's first executive chef, gets credit for the McRib in 1981, after developing it as a replacement for Chicken McNuggets--which Arend also came up with in 1979.)

The world's biggest "restructured meat" customer, by the way? The U.S. military, "as the beef, chicken, and pork products are convenient for feeding large numbers of people every day." 

A "street fight"

McDonald's has been pretty clear over the past year or so that it thinks its "customer of the future" might never even set foot in a McDonald's.

That's why it's put so much time and money into technology and delivery -- reporting that delivery is now a $3 billion a year business for McDonald's in its own right.

At the same time, the company reported in August that while revenue is up, the number of people actually visiting McDonald's isn't keeping pace. (Those who do visit spend more money, though.)

"Returning to guest count growth in the U.S. remains a top priority in the street fight for market share," the company's chief financial officer, Kevin Ozan, said on a conference call.

And that just might be one of the hidden advantages of the McRib: For its extremely devoted fans, they have to actually seek out a McDonald's in order to find one.