★ My friend Alissa Walker alerted me to McDonald’s’ new people-less pilot program, in which giant iPad-esque touch screens kinda-sorta replace actual humans at America’s 60-year-old burger chain. Would I, she asked, be interested in helping her review the experience? The prospect of flying to Los Angeles for a Big Mac was so absurd I had to do it. 24 hours later I met Alissa under the Golden Arches at 201 West Washington Boulevard in downtown LA. She’s covering the technology angle for Gizmodo, while I’ll be trying to derive some creative insight from this odd and slightly ominous move.
Currently offered at 18 of the chain’s 14,350 nationwide locations, the Create Your Taste program allows McDiners to build their own custom burger, select a preconfigured ‘favorite’, or order from the standard menu. To put the system through its paces, we ordered the signature Bic Mac, plus three built-to-order options (one of which was our attempt to recreate the McDonald’s classic, with disappointing results).
Described as “futuristic,” the upright, freestanding touch screen interface is largely pictorial, with enticing photographs of crisp lettuce, sliced beetroot, and fresh jalapeños (the jalapeños are actually preserved). The UI is reasonably intuitive, though not especially engaging. Once an item is selected, for example, it is added to a running list on the left hand column of the screen—an odd departure from an otherwise visual interface. Other build-to-order systems—like those for Converse or MINI—render a real-time photographic preview of your creation. A drag-and-drop UI or some other playful (but still efficient) feature could also have made the experience more enjoyable.
The customization options were a little more limited than I was expecting. The machine offers a choice between a one-third pound ground sirloin or a standard quarter-pound “100% beef” patty. Despite stories of people building gargantuan $890 burgers, on our visit we found the options limited to a maximum of two patties and 3x any given topping or condiment. As for bread, you can choose from a traditional sesame seed bun, a ciabatta roll, lettuce wrap, or an ‘artisan roll’. Despite my aversion to the arbitrary designation of things as ‘artisan’ I opted for the latter. A little lettuce, bacon, tomato, red onion, some pickles, and two slices of pepper jack cheese later and my $10.57 burger was 8-10 minutes away from being served ‘hot off the grill’ according to the system.
We grabbed a couple of imitation Eames chairs near the window, next to a large black-and-white photo of DTLA, and waited for our meal (that’s right, they serve you). Although I’d put the wait at closer to 20 minutes than ten, our food arrived as specified and was presented by two smiling servers. People, it seems, still play some role at McDonald’s. In the kitchen, the paint-by-numbers burger assembly is still performed by humans, though I imagine a day when that task is touted as a grand mechanical performance, perhaps behind a glassed-in kitchen at the center of the restaurant. Think: robotic Benihana (which I just found out is a real thing). Our servers had some trouble locating our table, which was identified by numbered RFID table locator (ours being three short of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything). The technology seemed like overkill (and didn’t seem to really work). Maybe McDonald’s is anticipating the day when its table location system guides tray-wielding robots to your table.
The burgers were served open faced in kraft-lined wire baskets. The fries, too, were presented in what looked like miniature chrome fry baskets. A nice touch.
I’m going to take some credit here and say that my burger was really the only decent one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could have removed the meat from our Big Mac and not noticed the difference. A beige muddle of bread and sauce, it bore little resemblance to the heroic image we’ve been promised in a thousand commercials. Our built-to-order attempt to recreate the classic sandwich was actually sightly worse. Alissa created a saucy western-style burger (BBQ sauce, bacon, guacamole, and jalapeños) with mixed results. My burger, on the other hand, arrived more or less as advertised. The bun was soft and fluffy and tasted like real bread. All of the toppings were fresh and appropriately apportioned. But the meats weren’t much different than the chain’s standard fare. The bacon was the weirdly thin, super-salty kind that people apparently go crazy for, and the machine-formed patties were dense, dry, and disappointing.
This is a problem for McDonald’s. Food is a fundamental part of the human experience. For a while now McDonald’s has been struggling to re-enter that experience, and redefine its relationship to its customers and their lives. But despite its marketing, the actual McDonald’s experience has never been particularly human. Clerks operate with mechanical efficiency. Kitchen staff assemble pre-packaged, prepared components into carefully engineered combinations that have a pleasing resemblance to food. The floor crew empties trash and wipes down tables with invisible efficiency. From the disembodied voice at the drive through to the conflation of your order and identity into a single integer, people pass anonymously though the great machine by the billions.
McDonald’s meals aren’t nourshing. Its decor, lighting, and overall dining experience aren’t welcoming or relaxing. The tables are plastic because they’re easier to wipe down. The lighting is designed to save energy, not enhance mood. Everything about the McXperience is optimized to operate at a corporate—not a human—scale. And yet the humans still come, one after another, to be slowly slaughtered by the billions. By the billions and billions. Perhaps the final concession, once the robots take over, is to acknowledge that is us who are feeding them, not the other way around.
The Creative Lesson
Words like “premium,” “deluxe,” and “gourmet” have been hijacked by the fast food industry (and the food industry in general) before in an effort to seduce customers with the promise of quality, or to obfuscate the distinction between healthful and unhealthful choices. But those words are subjective. ‘Artisan’ has a factual definition: Made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients.
To be fair, I haven’t been able to verify where McDonald’s makes its millions of ‘artisan’ rolls but I think it’s a fair guess that they don’t come from a worldwide network of local, independent bakeries. That notwithstanding, here is the list of “high quality ingredients” that go into an ‘artisan’ roll:
Wheat Flour or Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour or Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Malted Barley Flour, Water, Sugar, Yeast, Palm Oil, Wheat Gluten, Dextrose, Salt, Natural Flavors (Plant Source), Corn Flour, Soybean Oil, Calcium Sulfate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Ascorbic Acid, Enzymes, Calcium Propionate (Preservative), Vegetable Proteins (Pea, Potato, Rice), Sunflower Oil, Turmeric, Paprika, Corn Starch, Wheat Starch, Acetic Acid.
There are only two criteria required for thing to be considered artisan. McDonald’s’ ‘artisan’ roll meets neither of them. They know this of course, but they also know that artisan is the buzzword du jour in the food industry. So it’s a marketing angle, a calculated lie based on the belief that people are too stupid recognize the difference between what they’re promised and what they’re given. Rather than adapting to customer demand with substantive change, McDonald’s is instead co-opting language for its own ends—and rendering meaningless a word whose very definition is associated with a guarantee of quality, craft and humanity.
The lesson? To paraphrase Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no lie.”