OAK BROOK, Ill. — It's a McDonald's vision of the future: an automated fryer cooks and bags French fries while a vertical grill machine removes patties from the freezer and prepares them -- no burger flipper needed.
Out front, customers choose between speedy counter lines and self-service kiosks that send orders straight to the tables of harried moms and their kids. And everywhere hover friendly staffers, computer-trained in McDonald's hospitality.
This restaurant already exists inside a test lab near company headquarters. Even though the "customers" are employees, it illustrates the new technology McDonald's is tinkering with as it maps out the future for its 13,000-plus U.S. eateries.
McDonald's, while refocusing its resources on fast-food basics in a bid to end a persistent slump, is counting on concepts like the ones being tested at its Core Innovation Center to help it regain more of the dominance that once produced record profit for 45 consecutive quarters.
New Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Cantalupo's first goal is to "repair" McDonald's with a 12- to 18-month turnaround plan stressing better service and food quality and less expansion and capital spending. Developing more innovations, he hopes, should help keep it fixed beyond that.
"We're not only focused on that [revitalization], we're thinking about the long term," Cantalupo told reporters on a rare behind-the-scenes tour of McDonald's facilities last week.
The primary testing ground for technological innovations is an unmarked building in an office park in Romeoville, Ill., 15 miles southwest of McDonald's Oak Brook headquarters.
From under an overhead network of pipes and cables, a Webcam records every move of blue-uniformed employees as they crank out practice products from three test kitchens and process pretend customers. Among other equipment, it is here that the automatic beverage service in use in thousands of restaurants was developed.
What technology will be next to "graduate" to the company's vast network of restaurants?
Several concepts are under serious consideration:
* Self-service kiosks. In McDonald's version of the do-it-yourself checkout, patrons can punch in their orders on a touch screen, insert money and either pick up their food and change at the counter or, for parents with children, get it delivered to their tables in the restaurant's Play Place area.
The kiosks don't shorten the order-and-pickup time, but McDonald's says pilot tests at its restaurants in the Denver and Raleigh, N.C., areas have found them a popular option with customers. A decision on whether to install them more broadly is expected by year's end.
* Automated vertical grill. McDonald's first new grill innovation since 1985 pushes patties out of a freezer component and sends them by belt to a heating unit. Cooking time is the same, but labor costs are reduced and the staff is freed up to interact more with customers as needed.
McDonald's will pilot-test the concept, which originated in Sweden, in Chicago-area restaurants this year.
* Automated French-fry system. Load "Auto Frites" with frozen fries and it takes over, dumping them into the fryer when an order is placed. A robotic arm scoops up the finished products, inserts them into boxes, even shakes them to get more in before placing them in out slots.
Further evidence of its push to improve its often-criticized service via technology: McDonald's has begun giving new employees hospitality training using specially developed interactive CDs on computer terminals. A key message dished up repeatedly to young workers like video-game entertainment: Smile a lot and say "hello" and "thank you."
In a separate technology project, McDonald's is launching wireless Internet access in hundreds of restaurants this year -- charging $4.95 for two hours' use.
Management allowed reporters a first-ever peek at the innovation center in part to counter what Cantalupo sees as an unbalanced barrage of negative headlines. Some of the bad news has been linked to consumer lawsuits claiming McDonald's food contributed to their obesity, some to the company's uncharacteristically sluggish results since 2000.
But, Cantalupo acknowledged: "We get all that attention because we are No. 1....It comes with the turf."