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McDonald’s putting the fast back in its food

July 20, 1997

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) _ The owner of this McDonalds franchise starts a clock when an order comes in, beaming when three burgers and three chicken meals come in at 42 seconds.

It is a vision of McDonalds’ future built on new technology, one that puts the ``fast″ back into its food and the customers back in line under the Golden Arches.

``I didn’t even have my money out and they were calling my number,″ said Laura Stoeber, eating at Steve Bigari’s restaurant with her two sons and a nephew. ``And the food is warmer, fresh _ not stale like you can get it.″

The new technology _ much of it computer-run and focused on faster and fresher food _ is being tested at 64 restaurants.

Fries and drinks are prepared by computer-run machines, while other steps shave minutes off the time for workers to custom-make burgers, chicken and sandwiches. Customers get free meals if their order comes too slow.

``Some people have the mistaken impression that you can improve the quality of the food, but only at the expense of service,″ Bigari said. ``We’ve proven them wrong.″

McDonald’s has been struggling to boost sales while fending off competitors such as Wendy’s and Burger King, where sales are strong.

A much-hyped 55-cent promotion stalled, at least for burgers. The company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., has shaken up its domestic management, discounted Chicken McNuggets and tried links to Monopoly and Teenie Beanie Babies.

Still, last week’s reports showed a drop in second-quarter sales at domestic stores open at least a year.

After four years in the lab, restaurant tests are taking place in Pueblo, Colo.; Shreveport, La.; Columbus, Ohio; and Grand Rapids, Mich. They will expand to the San Diego area, the company decided last week.

At two of Bigari’s five Colorado Springs restaurants, computer screens and digital clocks are everywhere.

A computer-monitored machine dumps frozen fries into a basket, then into hot oil for cooking. Then the machine shakes the fries and dumps them into bins for serving.

Robot machines prepare drinks so quickly that a woman’s large Diet Coke is poured before she changes her mind and orders a regular medium Coke.

The brains of the operation is a computer system that instantly transmits orders to the kitchen, raising the efficiency level.

The computer even ``senses″ increases in customer traffic and orders workers to prepare popular sandwiches in advance.

Computer-run holding bins regulate temperatures for cooked meat and time how long it waits. After 30 minutes, McDonald’s says restaurants should throw out the food, even if it remains hot.

Large digital clocks outside drive-through windows let customers time their order, too. McDonalds promises that if the food is not ready in 3 1/2 minutes, the next meal is free. At the height of the Friday lunch hour here, most orders are in hand in a little more than a minute and a half.

Analysts say truly fast food, combined with McDonald’s marketplace strength, could be a strong step.

``McDonald’s is like a big battleship that’s slow to turn,″ said Merrill Lynch analyst Peter Oakes. ``But we’re going to see (McDonald’s) a little more nimble in days ahead, working to address some of their competitive shortcomings.″

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