Looking for the Cheapest Fast-Food Near You? There's Finally a Database to Help
When it comes to prices, not all fast food menus are created equal—even when we're talking about the same brand. A Big Mac in Massachusetts can cost as much as $7.89, but head over to Oklahoma and the same sandwich is only $3.39! How about a Crunchy Taco from Taco Bell? In certain areas of California, you'll pay over $3, while in different regions of the same state it costs as little as .99 cents.
If you've ever wondered where you can get the most fast food bang for your buck, there's finally an online tool for that! Developed by Riley Walz, a business major at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, The Fast Food Index tracks pricing across the country of four super popular fast food items: McDonald's Big Mac, Taco Bell's Crunchy Taco, Chipotle's Chicken Burrito, and Chick-fil-A's Chicken Sandwich.
The 20-year-old hopes to run his own business in the future, but for now, he's working as something of a "fast food data scientist." He told Insider this whole project started after he noticed that a Chicken Burrito from a Chipotle near Columbia University cost 15 cents more than the same order at a Chipotle on the Upper East Side.
"I was interested to see where's the cheapest burrito in the entire country and where is the most expensive one," he said.
Walz, who "dabbles" in coding, wrote a script that scraped menu data from nearly every fast food menu in the nation via the mobile apps of each fast food chain. "It just kept making a request, pretending it was going to make an order at every single store," he explained.
The index provides both national and local data. You can check out the average national price for all four items, as well as the three cities where each item is most and least expensive. There's also a Zip Code feature, allowing users to search their local areas for nearby prices.
Here are some highlights:
- The most expensive Big Mac is found in Lee, Massachusetts at a price of $7.89, followed close behind by Big Macs at two New Jersey locations ($7.79 in both Paramus and Fair Lawn, New Jersey). The least expensive Big Mac resides in Eufaula, Oklahoma at just $3.39.
- The most expensive Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich is in NYC ($6.29), followed by Washington, DC ($5.99) and Los Angeles, California ($5.79). Meanwhile, the least expensive Chicken Sandwich is waiting in Gainesville, Florida for just $3.69
- If you can eat a chicken burrito in New York, you can eat a chicken burrito anywhere. The most expensive Chipotle Chicken Burrito is sold in NYC for $11.10, while the race for least expensive is actually a three-way tie at $7.85 (Ann Arbor, MI, Athens, OH, and Iowa City, IA).
- The most expensive Crunchy Taco from Taco Bell is sold in Lebec, California ($3.39). Yet, somehow, the least expensive Crunchy Taco is sold in Whittier, California for .99 cents (Crunchy Tacos in Ellisville, Mississippi also go for just .99 cents).
- In big metropolitan areas like NYC or LA prices can vary greatly between local neighborhoods, however, this was least true among Chick-fil-A locations.
- Generally speaking, prices tend to be higher at chain locations close to college campuses.
Interestingly, two rest stops sit directly across from each other on opposite sides of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Both have McDonald's restaurants. One location charges $6.19 for a Big Mac while the other lists a price of $7.29. Insider asked McDonald's about this puzzling price discrepancy, but a company rep responded "prices are ultimately at the discretion of our franchisees and may vary by restaurant."
Taco Bell provided a similarly vague response to inquiries, explaining franchisees ultimately have control over their prices with the "goal of providing our guests with incredible value."
The Fast Food Index is an incredible tool, but it probably isn't infallible. Walz's script scraped menu data from 13,273 McDonald's locations, 2,495 Chick-fil-A locations, 7,414 Taco Bell restaurants, and 3,083 Chipotles – but those totals don't precisely match up with official national chain totals.
"I'm like 99.9% sure I have everything, but it's definitely possible I missed something," Walz noted.
This year, fast food menus have risen virtually across the board due to inflation and skyrocketing labor costs. In comparison to just last year, the cost of fast food was up 8.5% in September 2022. McDonald's U.S. prices saw a near 10% average year-over-year jump in Q3, and Chipotle's prices have increased by over 20% since 2020.