McDonald's new high-tech burger flipper
Automated grill being tested
CHICAGO, Illinois (Reuters) -- High-tech jobs may be moving overseas but one low-tech job Americans could always fall back on was flipping burgers at McDonald's.
That could change in the not-too-distant future. Later this year, a Chicago-area McDonald's restaurant will fry up hamburgers with an automated grill that dispenses patties directly onto the griddle from a separate freezer compartment, reducing labor and promising fresher sandwiches.
The newfangled equipment, developed in Sweden, is just one of several futuristic concepts the world's largest fast-food company is testing at its Romeoville, Illinois innovation site.
Experimenting with automation
McDonald's is also experimenting with automation to increase the amount of french fries it can produce during the busy lunch rush. Electronic kiosks that let customers key in their own orders have already moved beyond the lab into actual restaurants in two U.S. markets, and will be evaluated for broader use at year-end.
None of the new concepts is yet slated to become permanent, but change itself appears to be the mantra of McDonald's executives, who are attempting to revitalize the fast-food giant with everything from a healthier menu to in-store Internet access and hip-hop commercials promoting Big Macs.
"We want to be contemporary, hip and today," Charlie Bell, Chief Operating Officer of McDonald's, told reporters this week during a rare full-day look behind the scenes at the company's suburban Chicago operations. "We believe innovation is one of the fundamental engines for growth."
The jury is still out on whether McDonald's, which only recently began to overcome more than a year of sluggish sales, can revitalize its business. In recent months, it has battled everything from weak foreign economies to SARS in Asia.
In the United States, its largest market, it has struggled with declining service, increased competition and changing tastes from consumers seeking more sophisticated food.
Despite significant second-quarter U.S. improvement, analysts said they're not yet convinced of a turnaround. Chief Executive Jim Cantalupo, who took McDonald's helm late last year, in early April promised a come-back in 12 to 18 months.
"Are these sustainable things, or did the stars align?" questioned Jim Mueller, an analyst with Aim Investments, of second-quarter results. "A lot of the strategic things they talked about, those are still in the early stages. It's still very early from the operational side."
Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's remains undeterred, pushing ahead with new ways to leverage operations that include some 30,000 restaurants worldwide, a massive scale that has often been criticized as a deterrent to swift response to market forces.
For the first time in its 50-year history, it is unveiling a worldwide marketing campaign, dubbed "i'm lovin' it," that all 118 of its participating countries, ranging from Brazil to Iceland, will take up, customizing language and content for their specific markets.
Instead of the United States, long the leader in McDonald's marketing, the lead TV spots for the campaign were developed by Heye and Partners, a German unit of Omnicom Group Inc.'s DDB unit. In September, Germany will launch the campaign.
"As a company we need to participate in the global village concept," Dean Barrett, McDonald's vice president for marketing, said. He stressed that McDonald's is trying to adopt a "borderless approach" to doing business.
Watch it on video
In keeping with that theme, McDonald's division executives from around the world can now watch new technology like the automated grill unfold at the lab through video technology, offering important feedback to McDonald's engineers.
Among other reforms at the Golden Arches are Internet-based operations training for employees in six countries, including 5,000 U.S. restaurants, and video hospitality training for store managers.
"We're thinking about the long-term," Cantalupo told reporters. "We're now focused on a lot of innovation -- equipment, services and marketing."
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