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Less is more at the fast food drive-thru

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Kai Ryssdal: Generally speaking, bigger is better in the business world. Market share, economies of scale, it just make sense. The rule applies across all kinds of different industries, including, usually, fast food. But Andrea Gardner explains that in a down economy, consumers want a little something extra with their big value meals.

ANDREA GARDNER: In the fast-food business, small is the new big. Miniatures are popping up everywhere. Burger King has Burger Shots. McDonald’s is testing a tiny version of the Big Mac. Even Krispy Kreme has mini donuts.

Scott Hume runs He says, the recession is driving this.

SCOTT HUME: I think it’s a time when everybody’s looking for a little bit of fun. And little tiny burgers are undeniably cute.

White Castle has always had mini burgers, but this is the first time so many fast-food chains have jumped on the tiny bandwagon. Hume says, the idea sparked when sliders became successful in the upscale bar scene.

HUME: It’s a trend-driven business. When something comes in and it clicks, then all of the sudden you see restaurants at all different price levels thinking, that’s a good idea, let’s try that.

This isn’t about just bringing new customers to the drive thru. It’s also about getting fast-food lovers to visit more often. Minis are marketed as a late-night snack, and college student Vince Bauer, says that’s the only time he’d order mini burgers. He and his roommate Nick Pignotti finally tried them after being fascinated by their size.

VINCE BAUER: They’re small. They’re mini. I don’t know they look kinda good.

NICK PIGNOTTI: I like them. They are just so tiny. I just think the buns are funniest looking things.

Hume says, this kind of intrigue drives sales. That’s why chains are constantly adding new things to the menu, think Angus beef, Chipotle sauce, or a new dessert. But its rare that any new menu item is exciting enough to become a “thing.”

HUME: Consumers obviously were a little bit excited about this. You can’t discount that. Cute works.

But only for so long. Like everything in fast-food, there is a shelf life, and Hume predicts minis will be maxed out by the fall.

In Los Angeles, I’m Andrea Gardner for Marketplace.

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