McDonald's testing e-burgers

Millions of people bank at automatic-teller machines, fuel their cars atself-service gas pumps and buy airline tickets from computerized kiosks. So whycan't they order a Big Mac and fries on a machine?

Millions of people bank at automatic-teller machines, fuel their cars at self-service gas pumps and buy airline tickets from computerized kiosks. So why can't they order a Big Mac and fries on a machine?

McDonald's Corp. is working on it.

Seeking relief from placing help-wanted ads and betting that many consumers may prefer an electronic clerk to a live one, the world's largest restaurant chain is looking into installing self-serve ordering devices in its stores.

Two prototype ordering kiosks are already in tests at the company's food-research laboratory in suburban Chicago. And one McDonald's franchise -- in Wyoming, Mich., outside Grand Rapids -- is testing a third.

Humans will remain
McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard says the company will add a few more restaurants to the test by the end of the year. In any case, the company says, it plans to keep human order-takers at all its restaurants, too.

The kiosks do more than save money on live staffers. They also give customers an electronic push to order more. For example, the machine in the McDonald's in Wyoming, Mich., asks if customers would like to "SuperSize" a meal -- that is, buy one with more french fries and a bigger drink. The machine also suggests ordering a dessert.

One retired Canadian McDonald's franchisee, who independently installed automated devices several years ago, found that the average automated order was $1.20 larger than that placed with employees.

"My long-range vision is, let's put a bunch of these on the front counter," says the Wyoming McDonald's franchisee, Larry Berg. "I could probably deliver the food faster with fewer people."

Watching out for the kids
Berg installed the ordering kiosk in his restaurant's PlayPlace as a service to parents who don't want to leave their kids to order lunch. Instead, they simply step up to the machine, a brightly colored box slightly smaller than a telephone booth, make their meal selections on a touch-activated screen and insert money to pay for the food. An employee brings their order and their change to them.

The machines McDonald's is testing come from InfoAmerica Inc., Fort Collins, Colo. The company says the cost of the machines varies according to configuration and quantity ordered but is less than $7,500 apiece. The machine in Berg's franchise accepts only paper currency (and nothing greater than a $50 bill) but could be modified to take credit and debit cards. Berg says he doesn't mind if kids fool around with it, because it doesn't transmit an order to the kitchen until payment is received.

McDonald's competitors aren't sold on replacing their humans with machines. "Food is a personal business," says a spokesman for Wendy's International Inc. "We would rather have personal interaction with the customer so we can welcome and thank them." Still, he wouldn't totally dismiss the technology.

Taco Bell, now a unit of Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., experimented with self-order machines in the early 1990s but decided against their use. One reason: They transmitted orders faster than the kitchen could fill them. Also, the machines Taco Bell was using didn't accept money.

An Arby's Inc. franchise in Denver has installed some automated-ordering devices made by International Business Machines Corp. Unlike the McDonald's version, the IBM machines are based on text rather than graphics.

Mulilingual printouts
Mark Eagleton, senior manager for the franchise, says the machine's computer can be programmed so that if English isn't the kitchen crew's native tongue, the order printout they get can be in another language. That helps attract and retain Hispanic workers in that market, Eagleton says.

Another advantage: "It's real good for the handicapped customer, especially people who can't talk," he says.

At McDonald's, some executives are already looking beyond the current test and talking about stand-alone kiosks that would take orders in the drive-through lane. Because of their exposure to the elements, and would-be thieves, outdoor models would have to be more secure than the current sheet-metal version.

Howard, the chain's spokeswoman, stresses that the whole concept of automation, outdoors or indoors, remains an experiment. "It's still early in the game to know if this would work," she says. "We need to see how this integrates with our operations behind the counter."

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