Fast-food deals go into overdrive as economy sputters

— -- Cheap eats are making a rapid-fire return to fast food.

As the economy continues to tank and unemployment in the core 18- to 24-year-old target hovers near 20%, some of the biggest names in fast food — from Pizza Hut to Subway to Taco Bell— are back with eye-popping deals.

It's not because the fast-food behemoths want to go so low. It's because they have to. After some improvement late last year and earlier this year, the $236 billion fast-food industry — with the notable exception of McDonald's — is mostly heading south, again.

The statistics are alarming. The number of annual restaurant visits by a typical Millennial has plummeted from 245 visits five years ago to 192 this year, NPD Group reports. That's one less visit every week. In July, the most recent month reported, restaurant performance slipped to its lowest level in nearly a year as owners — seeing softening sales — downgraded plans for capital spending and offered up their worst overall performance expectations in 20 months, says a National Restaurant Association survey.

"We've never seen anything like this," says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst at NPD. Here's how low the latest deals go:

•$10 pizzas. Pizza Hut just re-introduced its $10 any pizza deal. "The environment hasn't gotten any better for consumers," chief marketing officer Kurt Kane says.

•$7.99 pizzas. Domino's is rolling out its Artisan Pizza at a ridiculously low $7.99. Although it now offers a $7.99 deal on large, carryout pizzas on Mondays through Wednesdays, this is the first $7.99 large, three-topping, home-delivered pizza in memory, spokesman Chris Brandon says.

•$6.99 meals for two. For less than $7, Burger King is offering two Whoppers, two small fries and two small drinks.

•$5 subs. On Oct. 1, Subway will bring back its $5 deal on any foot-long, except premium subs, says Tony Pace, CMO of Subway's ad group. "You have to have strong offers out there in this economy," he says.

•$5 meals.Dairy Queen recently rolled out $5 Mini Blizzard meals, which gets folks a DQ GrillBurger with cheese, fries, medium drink and Mini Blizzard.

•99-cent sandwiches. Taco Bell just rolled out a 99-cent Chicken Flatbread sandwich. "Deals are more important than ever," says Tom Wagner, marketing vice president.

•Freebies. Burger King will happily hand you a free ice cream cone just for ordering its already-cheap value meal.