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Fast food is way more expensive than it was pre-pandemic

Subway tuna.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • Fast food prices keep going up even as it remains more popular than ever.
  • Costs for staple ingredients like chicken breasts, eggs, and pork have skyrocketed.
  • Labor has gotten more expensive as some businesses say they can’t find workers.

The whole fast food landscape has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, including prices.

While fast food has gotten more convenient and accessible than ever over the last two years, prices have climbed significantly.

Some chains have been vocal about rising prices, warning customers ahead of time. Chipotle has been upfront about price increases over the last few years in part due to raising wages for employees. In June, the fast-casual chain said that it raised prices about 4%, making the average meal 30 to 40 cents pricier.

“We think everybody in the restaurant industry is going to have to pass those costs along to the customer,” CFO Jack Hartung said in an April earnings call, warning of coming price hikes.

Many price increases can likely in part also be attributed to rising ingredient costs. Meat, poultry, fish, and egg prices all rose year over year, according to the BLS data. Pork prices rose 14.1%, their highest ever increase in BLS history, and beef prices increased a whopping 20.1%, and tortilla prices have also jumped.

Chicken, which is a staple in quick-service restaurants given the still-growing demand for chicken sandwiches and wings, also continued climbing. Chicken breast prices doubled last year, The Wall Street Journal reported. The chicken sandwiches sold by Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, and other competitors are made with white meat filets from chicken breasts, and these chains had to contend with rising costs.

In July, Insider reported on some chains raising prices by as much as 10%. The greatest price increases were 10% at Taco Bell, 8% at McDonald’s, and 8% at Dunkin’, followed by Chipotle and The Cheesecake Factory, according to analysis from Gordon Haskett. Prices continued growing for the rest of the year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices at limited-service restaurants, meaning fast food and fast casual, peaked at 7.1% higher than the year before in October.

Labor costs are partially the cause of these rising prices. Business owners say they’re unable to find staff and in some cases even cite a lack of desire to work, while workers say they can demand better pay and benefits in the tight labor market. Chains including Chipotle and Starbucks have announced wage increases to attract and retain workers.

Inflation seems to be outpacing the wage growth many Americans saw during the pandemic, meaning those people would have less buying power when it ends than they did when it started. Some experts say inflation peaked this fall and will slow down in 2022, so there’s hope that fast food prices won’t necessarily continue on this trajectory. 

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at [email protected].

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