Facing stiff competition from climbers like Shake Shack, plus a growing demand for healthier options from the public, McDonald’s, the once-undisputed king of fast food, has had to watch its throne lately. The golden arches continues to lean on technology and service, rather than food quality, to maintain its place at the top of the fast-food chain. Its latest foray into tech comes in the form of a new location in Chicago that sports table service, digital kiosks, and what the chain calls "premium" ingredients.
A new McDonald’s in the heart of Chicago’s artsy River North neighborhood is a sign of the direction the Big Mac slinger is headed. The so-called "McDonald’s of the Future" is entirely unlike a traditional fast food restaurant (and is just one of a handful currently being tested in New York, Florida, California, and Chicago).
McDonald’s has struggled in recent years. In 2015 it closed more stores than it opened and unveiled a landmark turnaround plan that was intended to improve sales, image, and consumer satisfaction. Part of that turnaround included the introduction of all-day breakfast.
But the company has looked beyond its menu to sustain its recent success. In a July earnings call with investors, chief executive officer Steve Easterbrook said McDonald’s is banking on providing an "experience of the future" through digital innovations, like self-serve kiosks, at restaurants throughout the country.
At the newest location in Chicago, fluorescent lighting and grease-splattered walls are replaced with modern split counters and an expanded line of baked goods; the usual counter staff is there, but so are a handful of shiny new touch-screen kiosks. Customers can personalize their orders, too, by selecting a bun, a protein and adding different toppings: maple bacon, Dijon mustard, and grilled onions.
It’s a bit of a shock to the system, if only because it goes against nearly every tenet of fast food psychology. Traditionally, McDonald’s stores were designed with the fast food customer in mind: The colors red and yellow trigger hunger but, when paired with the bright lighting, they encourage a quick customer turnaround. To that same end, the seats in fast food restaurants are usually comfortable, but not too comfortable. It was all designed to subtly encourage and promote speed, value, and efficiency. Adding ordering kiosks and exposed plywood brings these tenets of McDonald’s mission into the modern day. But will they resonate with consumers?
The new Chicago location also includes table service, which a spokesperson says "gives our customers an opportunity to relax and enjoy a new level of service when dining in." In the drive-thru, diners are met with digital menu boards, which change throughout the day to reflect the items the store is looking to sell at a given time. (Some McDonald’s menu boards can even reflect changes in the weather, though that’s not currently a function of the boards at the Chicago store.)
Customers so far seem impressed by McD’s tech-friendly makeover, though some have noted that, unless the chain improves the quality of its food, its future isn’t all that bright:
there are waitresses at the mcdonalds on chicago and state... the come up is real. omg— Adrianaa (@Nana_Nalaaa) September 23, 2016
Ordered my mcdonalds on a machine & paid with my phone!!!!! Wowee the future is now— kate campbell (@ktcampbelll) September 25, 2016
I'm sorry to report I just ate at the #McDonalds of the future and the menu is the same as it was in 2016.— Alex Flippin (@KNPNAlexFlippin) September 20, 2016
Love the touch screen ordering in @McDonalds but when collect order staff don't speak or thank you. Wonder if this is part of the strategy!— Steve (@78steve29) September 26, 2016
McDonald’s says it's seen success with its more modern restaurant concept in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia. "We are finding that customers are enjoying the whole experience — including the kiosks that allow customer to customize their sandwich with their choice of bun, protein, and additional ingredients," a spokesperson says. "Also, there are McDonald’s crew members to help guide their experience with the kiosks if needed."
Much has been written about digital kiosks in the fast food industry, with some fast food CEOs suggesting they could be used to offset labor costs. Former McDonald’s president Ed Rensi has argued that a $15 minimum wage (already instituted in some parts of the country) could lead to fully automated restaurants. But Easterbrook promises it won’t be replacing workers with robots.
A spokesperson says the new store in Chicago has actually added staff, rather than replaced employees with kiosks. In Jacksonville, Florida, where a handful of kiosks are currently being installed in at least seven McDonald’s, the trend is the same: Staff has increased so that the stores have enough workers to deliver the food and help out at the kiosks.
During a May shareholder’s meeting, Easterbrook was asked point-blank whether "people will end up losing jobs" to what are essentially robots. "Frankly we will always have an important human element because that is what brings the service experience to life," he said. "... You know, whether it’s through their phone or whether through self-order kiosks, that is the societal trend. We want to adopt to that, but it’s not actually meant as a labor replacement. We can just reapportion that labor into more service-orientated roles that we think the customer will benefit both ways."