The other day I was standing in line at McDonald's and overheard a customer order the "McGangBang." After a failed attempt to locate a "McGangBang" on the menu, I asked my cashier to shed some light on the peculiar item. As if fearful of being overheard, the cashier lowered his voice: "It's part of our secret menu." 

Secret menus have become almost ubiquitous among fast food chains. In-N-Out's 4x4 Burger, Burger King's Suicide Burger, and Starbucks's Cinnamon Toast Crunch Frappuccino have cult-like followings. Secret menus do much more than tantalize our taste buds: They're clever marketing ploys, and offer useful lessons for small businesses:

Fulfilling the need for control

We want control over what we put in our mouths. "People want to have control over what they order and what they're eating," John Barker, former chief communications officer for Wendy's, explained to The New Yorker in 2014. It's why the ability to customize a meal is one of the most important factors when it comes to our dining selection. 

Secret menus afford us a sense of control. Ordering the "Flying Dutchman" from In-N-Out despite it not being listed on the "real" menu makes us feel like we are somehow beating the system.

Think about whether or not your customer experience empowers customers with a sense of control. When you allow customers to customize your products according to their preferences, they feel empowered with a sense of control--and are more likely to open their wallets. 

Avoiding menu clutter

Why not simply include secret menu items as part of regular menus? Chris Ponzio, director of marketing at burger chain BurgerFi, explained to CNBC, "We don't want to overburden our digital menu boards by putting everything on there because simplicity and ease of ordering is probably the most important thing in this business." 

Research shows that when consumers are overwhelmed with too many options, they're less likely to make a decision (the "paradox of choice"). Excluding secret menu items from regular menus ensures that consumers aren't overwhelmed with options. It decreases the likelihood that other customers will become disgruntled waiting in line.

Take a close look at your product portfolio. Can it be digested in mere minutes? If not, it might be time for a refresh.

Minimizing R&D spend

Secret menus are a lucrative avenue for companies looking to minimize R&D costs. They allow companies to vet ideas with customers on a small scale before committing to producing them on a large scale and allocating lofty budgets to advertise them.

The Starbucks Medicine Ball, a tea concoction touted as a "cure" for the common cold, has risen from the secret menu ranks to be included as an official menu item. Starbucks has cashed in on the popular item with minimal R&D spend.

Several forward-thinking companies have made it a practice to leverage customer co-creation--incorporating customers into the R&D and creative processes--and reward promising ideas in the form of contests and other promotions. Startups with limited budgets can take advantage of social media platforms to create vibrant customer communities and crowdsource ideas from customers. Research by Bulbshare has revealed that 77 percent of people favor brands that collaborate with customers.

Encouraging social sharing

Secret menu items are readily sharable on social media. When we stumble upon a new secret menu item, we want to be the first to spread the word. We want to be the ones to inspire awe in others when they learn that Chipotle offers a Burritodilla. 

Shared "tribal" knowledge of secret menus items also causes us to develop strong bonds with other members of our tribe. We thrive on bonding with others who have experienced something that few others have. Taco Bells' Cheesarito has its own Facebook page.

How incentivized are your customers to engage in social sharing? When you craft quirky promotions and offer customers unique experiences (especially those that empower them to bond with like-minded others), they are more incentivized to engage in social sharing. 

Members of an exclusive club

Secret menus go a long way in encouraging identity fusion with a company and giving us a visceral sense of oneness with the brand. According to Nation's Restaurant News, "if customers know the secret menu, they feel like they're insiders."

Do your customers feel like members of an exclusive club? When you offer customers exclusive perks or the ability to participate in a loyalty program, they're more likely to feel personally connected to your brand. 

Some companies have gone to great lengths to make their secret menus less secret. Panera, for example, has publicly listed its secret menu items. Yet the acclaim of secret menus continues to loom large and it's worthwhile for businesses to try to harness the powers of secret menus for their own benefit.

On the (secret) menu this holiday season? Starbucks's Snowball Frappuccino, S'mores Hot Chocolate, and Butterbeer Frappuccino.