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Here's something to consider if you go out to lunch today or to dinner tonight: when you're trying to decide where to eat, what's on the menu is supposed to be paramount. But for restaurants trying to lure customers through the door, it's as much about what's not on the menu. And that's today's bottom line in business. From Birmingham, Alabama, Gigi Douban reports on the rise of the hidden menu.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Do a YouTube search of secret menus, and you'll find dozens of online videos like these.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So, I'm talking to an employee right now, and he's going to tell us all, like, what's going on with the secret menu.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is - it's like the meal of the Illuminati. It's a secret. No one can eat this.

JASON COFFEE: My name's Jason Coffee, and this is top five Starbucks secrets.

DOUBAN: These are people who feel like they're in on something. It's like they've become restaurant insiders, or like they cracked some big code. Now, secret menus pretty much have the same items you'd find on a regular menu, just mixed up a different way. They're not new. In-N-Out Burger has had one for years. But experts say more companies are adding secret menu items. They're even catching on overseas in places like the United Kingdom and Singapore. Especially in this economy, restaurants want to set themselves apart. And a lot of times, it's about connecting with customers, says Bret Thorn. He's senior food editor of Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication.

BRET THORN: Well, if you have a secret menu, or if customers know the secret menu, they feel like they're insiders. They feel kind of a personal connection to the restaurant. They feel they know something that maybe not everybody else does. And everyone loves that.

DOUBAN: The latest player to jump into the secret menu game is Panera Bread. Last month, the company rolled out six new items. The one thing you won't see on Panera Bread's secret menu? Bread.

SCOTT DAVIS: This is probably the most extreme anti-kind of Panera diet you can have, right? It doesn't include bread and flour and that sort of stuff.

DOUBAN: Scott Davis oversees menus for Panera Bread. He says that the company had been missing out on a whole group of diners: people who were cutting carbs, diabetics and people avoiding gluten. This menu lets the company tap into that growing health-conscious market.

DAVIS: If someone never who had considered Panera before - because the name bread is in it, for instance - this has a way of opening that door.

DOUBAN: So, at its 1,800 stores around the country, Panera trained its employees to either pull out the secret menu card or scan a code that'll put the menu on a customer's mobile device, but only if someone asks for it. Davis says there's a reason they're doing it this way: It saves money.

DAVIS: It's a lot easier to execute, not having to go through the printing of all the collateral materials, and ultimately kind of cluttering up the cafe with too many messages.

DOUBAN: There are no brochures, no huge ad campaigns. And if Panera doesn't want to make these items anymore, no big deal. It's kind of a low-risk experiment. Panera is getting the word out through its customer loyalty program and through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And that's common for restaurants launching secret menus. They use word of mouth. But that doesn't always cut it. I found that out when I went through two different McDonald's drive-thrus recently looking for a Monster Mac. That's a Big Mac with eight patties. Can I get a Monster Mac, please?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A who?

DOUBAN: A Monster Mac.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A Big Mac?

DOUBAN: No, a Monster Mac.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, we don't have that.

DOUBAN: Oh, well. Probably better off without it, anyway. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to the Monster Mac of morning programs: MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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