McDonald’s Is Testing Big Changes In a Tiny Restaurant

An experimental location in Fort Worth, Texas, shows a glimpse into McDonald's plans.

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small mcdonald's exterior
Photo: McDonald’s

The future of fast food is looking small—physically, that is. Some fast food restaurants have been struggling to keep up the pace in terms of drive thru order speed (Chick-Fil-A, we’re looking squarely at you), others are adding extra drive-thru lanes, like Taco Bell, and according to a McDonald’s press release, now McDonald’s is looking in a completely different direction by testing a new diminutive location, specializing in takeout, delivery, and drive-thru only. The test location is in Fort Worth, Texas, and it’s notable for multiple reasons.

Food will be delivered to you via conveyor belt

If you order prior to arriving, you’ll be picking up your food from a dedicated window made just for preorders. The window is fitted with a conveyor belt that’ll bring the order to you from the kitchen.

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And if you’re curious as to whether or not your food’ll just sit there until you arrive, fortunately, McDonald’s took that into consideration. If you’re stuck in traffic somewhere, that’s okay, because the app signals to the restaurant when you’re physically nearby. That’s when the kitchen begins preparing your order. No soggy french fries for you (ideally).

There’s a dedicated room just for delivery drivers

Restaurants have widely acknowledged the importance of couriers to their business, and this test location features a special pick-up room and counter for delivery drivers. It’s interesting to note because it’s one thing to designate a little pickup area inside a restaurant for drivers, but it’s a whole different consideration if the infrastructure of a building is dedicated to them.

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I drove for a delivery app for some months, a few years back, and I can certainly say that this would be a benefit for everyone. When I’d have to do a pickup, sometimes I’d be in a lobby full of dine-in customers, and it’d be difficult for me to talk to someone to grab a delivery order that was waiting for me to courier. Plus my mere physical presence made me feel like I was woefully in the way, so a room for people like me would have made my life immensely easier.

What are the implications of a take-out only McDonald’s location?

Because there’s so much at play here, like a tiny footprint, and a radical redesign of customer flow, this is really a test of a bunch of moving parts. That’s why there’s only one location committed to this system for now. Whether it’s what consumers demand will be determined with time. It’s certainly a move towards less customer interaction (it doesn’t get any more impersonal than a literal conveyor belt), but that leaves us with a lot of questions.

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This could partially be a strategy to find a way to implement less staff, especially with the current lack of fast food employees on the market. With all cashiers removed (though I’m assuming there’d be one employee to help answer occasional customer questions), the restaurant would require less workers. So McDonald’s labor costs would be slimmed down, but that means there’s less bodies involved.

But then how would customer service work? All fast food apps make it notoriously difficult to contact the restaurant in case of missing items or ones that are botched (which happens). I feel like there’d just be an impenetrable digital wall keeping you from getting your order fixed quickly, meaning if something gets messed up, you’re out of luck.

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Then, it’s hard for me not to wonder what kind of demands would be put on a lean kitchen staff, especially during a rush period. If a McDonald’s location with less staff gets slammed, all that pressure gets put on the kitchen. As a former kitchen guy, getting crushed with orders is a type of stress I would never want someone else to experience. It gets infinitely worse if you’re working with a skeleton crew. That’s the type of pressure that damages mental health and also, one bad night on a kitchen job can and will motivate laborers to walk off on the spot. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. I’ve seen it happen. Multiple times.

Again, this is a single location we’re talking about, so the results won’t be seen for quite a while. But if all works out, I could certainly see other fast food restaurants following suit to save money on real estate, staffing, and to improve efficiency. So maybe the future of fast food isn’t big, after all, but the exact opposite.