Stephen Speicher

Making a better drive-thru

18 posts in this topic

A small, but interesting story was released to the news wires yesterday (3/10/05) by the fast food giant McDonald's. In order to increase the throughput speed and the accuracy of drive-thru orders, McD has been investigating the idea of setting up a remote central service to take local orders. McDonald's Chief Executive Jim Skinner has been quoted as saying "If you're in L.A.... and you hear a person with a North Dakota accent taking your order, you'll know what we're up to."

I do not myself eat at McDonald's or other fast food places, but I have many times used the drive-thru line for family or friends. Inevitably, at least here in Los Angeles, more often than not there would be some mixup with the final order. Most order takers here usually have a thick Mexican accent, and sometimes I have not been clear on what they say. Based on trying to communicate at the pay window, I suspect that they also have difficulty understanding me.

When I first heard this story about McDonald's intentions, it occurred to me that the politically-correct left might cry "racism" here in Los Angeles because those being displaced would primarily be Latinos. What surprised me, and what never occurred to me, was that some on the right might object too. On what basis? Well, I just heard a local conservative talk show host, Al Rantel on KABC, lament that this whole call center approach was just a devious attempt to eventually out-source the call center to third world locations where the company will pay a fraction of the price for the service.

Poor McDonald's cannot win. Either the left will demean them for racism, or the right will scream mean, greedy Big Business. God forbid that McDonald's should increase the speed and accuracy of orders while simultaneously reducing the cost. Makes me furious enough that I might go to a drive-thru on my own! :)

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A small, but interesting story was released to the news wires yesterday (3/10/05) by the fast food giant McDonald's. In order to increase the throughput speed and the accuracy of drive-thru orders, McD has been investigating the idea of setting up a remote central service to take local orders. 

It looks like this story is getting lots of headlines. From a division of labor point of view it makes perfect sense. Also, I cannot tell you how many times my order is taken incorrectly, and this has the potential to fix that. On a related note, here's my fantasy of the ultimate in fast food technology:

Develop a totally robotic factory-like kitchen in which all food is prepared by robot arms etc..

Patrons can watch the food being prepared through glass viewing windows (like Krispy Kreme). The only people employed would be the cashiers and people to clean the eating area of the patrons. Every night the entire food preparation area and robot devices are cleaned like the inside of a giant dishwasher (or car wash). This would ensure superior cleanliness and ensure consistency in the quality of the food (and cops etc.. wouldn't have to worry about nasties in their burgers)

Point of sale could be through a human cashier or alternatively several ATM like terminals in which you enter your order using a touch screen.

Ultimately in my fast food fantasy store there would no interaction with humans at all!!!

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It looks like this story is getting lots of headlines. From a division of labor point of view it makes perfect sense. Also, I cannot tell you how many times my order is taken incorrectly, and this has the potential to fix that. On a related note, here's my fantasy of the ultimate in fast food technology:

Develop a totally robotic factory-like kitchen in which all food is prepared by robot arms etc..

Patrons can watch the food being prepared through glass viewing windows (like Krispy Kreme). The only people employed would be the cashiers and people to clean the eating area of the patrons. Every night the entire food preparation area and robot devices are cleaned like the inside of a giant dishwasher (or car wash). This would ensure superior cleanliness and ensure consistency in the quality of the food (and cops etc.. wouldn't have to worry about nasties in their burgers)

Point of sale could be through a human cashier or alternatively several ATM like terminals in which you enter your order using a touch screen.

Ultimately in my fast food fantasy store there would no interaction with humans at all!!!

What a great perspective! I say we vote Ken in as CEO of the firm. :)

p.s. Why stop at the cashiers and the area-cleaning people? Supermarkets and other stores now have automatic checkout facilities, and we can hire James Dyson to design a perfect area-cleaning robot.

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Hmm, now I learn to appreciate the pretty young Hungarian girls who take my orders at Hungarian McD outlets, who speak my language perfectly! :)

Well, I just heard a local conservative talk show host, Al Rantel on KABC, lament that this whole call center approach was just a devious attempt to eventually out-source the call center to third world locations where the company will pay a fraction of the price for the service.

Ah, the protectionist "right," always ready to defend America from Americanism... [sigh!]

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I worked at a McDonalds from 3/85 until 8/87 and they were somewhat "robotic" then. Everything that the worker does is regulated by buttons, beepers and measurements.

An example of making a burger:

1) put the meat down and hit the appropriate button for the size of the meat, (there are different buttons for different sizes of meat)

2) the first beep goes off and you sear the meat

3) second beep and you flip the meat

4) last beep goes off, you shake the extra grease off the burger and put it onto the correct bun

While this is all going on the worker is setting up the chosen amount of buns with their certain condiments.

I think one of the key items that technology would have to figure out is a way around waste. There are certain times within a daily cycle that obviously have a larger draw of people eating. A good manager knows this and regulates the amount of burgers so that waste will be minimal. A manager that makes inappropriate decisions will get fired. But, in Lewiston New York where I worked, bad weather could play havoc with the amount of people that show up at all. A computer program would have to take into affect this element so that you do not waste a days worth of resources. I am sure that there is a computer genius that could figure this out by seeing the corrolaries of weather in relation to total sales, then put this into the system.

I also think robotics has the potential to make burgers even cheaper with a larger profit for owners. Although everyone is trained how to properly apply all items, some people always used personal preference to apply mustard, ketchup, tomatoes, etc. Also when making pancakes, giving more squirts than were appropriate. A robot would not have friends asking for more than they were supposed to get nor would they waste as much.

I think the idea could revoluntinize burger making and profits. Is anyone up for it?

Ray K

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A computer program would have to take into affect this element so that you do not waste a days worth of resources.  I am sure that there is a computer genius that could figure this out by seeing the corrolaries of weather in relation to total sales,  then put this into the system.

In "Business @ The Speed of Thought" Bill Gates wrote about Marks & Spencer, a british retail chain:

The system will even get automatic feeds from local weather services and be able to make appropriate food stocking suggestions - soup, maybe, if the forecast is for stormy weather, or meat for barbecue if the day will be sunny.

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I have not read Bill Gates book but know that it was released a few years ago. It is great to see that someone else who spends their time in that industry has already thought of it.

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I have not read Bill Gates book but know that it was released a few years ago.  It is great to see that someone else who spends their time in that industry has already thought of it.

Way back in the 1950's, computers were being used to make manufacturing decisions in many industries.

My father was an entrepreneur and during the 1950s he had a prosperous meat packing plant in Philadelphia. Knowing my interest in computers, he showed me articles in his trade magazine, The National Provisioner, about computers being used to calculate optimum incredients for sausages based on current market prices for livestock and other commodities. After investigating the matter, he found that the services were expensive, only gave once a day results instead of the up-to-the-minute responses to market conditions he needed, and didn't do as good a job as he could with a pencil and paper.

A half century later, things have changed. A modern meat packer can get timely commodity prices from the internet, automatically optimize his sausage formulas on his PDA, place his orders online, and reconfigure his automated packing plant in minutes.

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I have not read Bill Gates book but know that it was released a few years ago.  It is great to see that someone else who spends their time in that industry has already thought of it.

Gates is a brilliant mind and has the ability to communicate complex problems economically. This book was a joy to read and I can definitely recommend it.

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I think one of the key items that technology would have to figure out is a way around waste.  There are certain times within a daily cycle that obviously have a larger draw of people eating.  A good manager knows this and regulates the amount of burgers so that waste will be minimal.  A manager that makes inappropriate decisions will get fired.  But, in Lewiston New York where I worked, bad weather could play havoc with the amount of people that show up at all.  A computer program would have to take into affect this element so that you do not waste a days worth of resources.  I am sure that there is a computer genius that could figure this out by seeing the corrolaries of weather in relation to total sales,  then put this into the system.

I worked at Burger King from '86 through '88 and it paid my first year of college! I learned a lot about the industry and still think fondly of the experience. I probably worked harder (physically) at that job than any since then. I was on the late night shift and after we closed at 2am we had to tear down all equipment in the kitchen and totally clean the place from top to bottom. If the official procedures are followed the result is a very sanitary store and quaility food. I gained a lot of respect for the quality that can be achieved when procedures are followed. I would say that a well run fast food joint can surpass the quality/cleanliness of a mom & pop resteraunt. (key word in that statement is "well run").

I don't think adjusting the robo-kitchen to fluctuations demand would pose a problem to this plan. In fact, this is one are where the computer has revolutionized manufacturing. Others have pointed out examples of this.

I would say the hardest roadblock is a business problem. To develop an automatic kitchen as outlined in my "fantasy" would be extremely expensive and wouldn't pay for itself with only a handful of stores. You would need to have hundreds of stores that use this auto-kitchen before you could pay for the R&D and constructions of the robotic hardware. Profit margins in the fast food industry is very miniscule compared to other industries.

Highschoolers make for very cheap labor, which your robitic kitchen must compete against. Compare this to the skilled labor (and unionized) in an auto plant, here the robots can quickly pay for themselves, as they compete against fairly expensive human workers.

I think today's technology is more than up to the task for implementing this robo-kitchen with all the advantages stated earlier, but it just costs too much compared to the current fast food labor force. It would also need to be scaled to hundreds of stores before it could cover the R&D costs, etc...

And on top of all these issues is the speculative nature of the business plan. If you invest a billion dollars to implement this idea, and nobody wants to eat at your place, then you are looking at a huge loss. The trick is to develop a business plan that has lots of cheap incremental milestones.

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alternatively several ATM like terminals in which you enter your order using a touch screen.

In the future, I foresee every person carrying around a small device which is very similar to todays USB keydrives. That device will contain digital lock codes that will identify the person to each device that they own.

It might allow the person to open their house door, log into all their IM accounts from a net cafe without having to worry about remembering passwords, or unlock their car.

The advantage to that kind of device when using a car, is that it allows you to identify yourself to the car without any extra effort than todays technology.

As you have probably seen, a lot of cars are getting outfitted with touchscreen incar GPS navigation systems. Those systems are quite useful, allowing yourself to find any destination quickly. You have a screen and input device, you have a computer powering it. What else could you put that same hardware to use for?

When you can identify yourself to the car and with that sort of hardware already in the car, it won't take much more effort to put a wireless or satellite transceiver into it too. You could surf the internet, or log into the global finance networks automatically.

Ordering a hamburger from a drive through could then be as simple as pressing the touch screen icon for your favourite companies. Pressing the big fat food icon. And then pressing, say Mc Donalds for example.

You get nice big icons appearing on the screen so it doesn't distract you from driving, displaying a menu of stuff to order. After you press the Pay Now button, the balance is deducted from your bank account. (since you are identified to the car, don't need to type in any messy numbers, I know of a way that it can be done secure).

When the order is transmitted, the car can look at it's current location from the GPS system, the current route and speed that the car is taking, and transmit an estimated arrival time to the drive thru and a description of the car as part of the order.

The store knows how long it takes to make their orders, they do it every day afterall. :P

So they can time the making of each item in the order so it will be hot, just off the oven(or cold in the case of ice-cream) so everything will be perfect for the customer when they arrive with very little waste.

When the customer arrives, they don't have to fiddle with money or order taking machines. They have simply got to open their window, accept the food and drive off and enjoy it with no wait at all. :)

The technology can easily be expanded to run on peoples mobile phones. I have seen that some of the newer models have a GPS in them. Then you can not only have a drive-thru but also a walk through with the phones camera functionality taking a photo of you so the store can identify you as picking up the order. ;)

One of the best bits about a system such as that, is that they don't need to rip out all their current stuff to make room to implement it. They can phase that technology in gradually across stores as each suburb starts to have more hi-tech customers.

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I have experience in fast food and some of the things mentioned sound great.. including the customer ordering their own food and automated purchasing. I do think they would need some refinements to be made more practical, but the idea is good.

Unfortunately there are always those few customers who have a disconnect between their brain and body, they say/do things they don't actually want. :P In many cases this is what the bottleneck is, and why you may be waiting in line for too long.

I will take a different route on this subject, since the electronics side has already been touched on. I would like to see more involvement in how the food can be cooked faster and more effectively. One possibility is burgers that have less fat and water content in them so that the broiler is just not heating up water that will vaporize anyway... and so it applies all of the heat right to cooking the burger. Perhaps a new design for a broiler as well, the current ones heat the burger on only one side. Another important step is a more efficient layout of the boards where the food is prepared.

P.S. The wireless systems at these restaurants are amazing. You can be well inside an enclosed solid steel cooler and freezer and still have no trouble at all hearing what's going on. ;)

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One possibility is burgers that have less fat and water content in them so that the broiler is just not heating up water that will vaporize anyway...  and so it applies all of the heat right to cooking the burger.

Don't take the fat out of my burgers!

I try to cut down on fat in a lot of ways, but a burger without enough fat in it just tastes wrong. I'm a life-long burger lover, and some things I refuse to give up! :P

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Hmmm... what kind of burgers are you eating? :P I can barely stand fast food burgers... but I love 93% lean beef. Very little grease, it doesn't shrink to half its original size once cooked, and tastes great. If it doesn't taste right you're probably not cooking it correctly. (either wrong temp or infrequent "flips")

My favorite burger by far is made by Steak&Shake. I'm not sure of their fat content but they are certainly more lean than regular fast food burgers.

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I'm waiting for the ultimate in fast food: the 'Copia. It is (on average) a printer/copier-sized machine which can be programmed to assemble any food item - one atom at a time. Want a Big Mac and a shake? How about a medium rare steak? Or sushi? Just select your food item from any reputable chef/programmer around the world, download its nano-construction program from the online molecular database (or choose from any of your previously stored favorites), activate the 'Copia and viola, you have a four star meal (or junk food) for pennies (if that much).

Of course, the repercussions of such a device upon the food industry will be earth-shattering. Farmers, grocers, supermarkets, and a vast number of restaurants, along with their corresponding employees, shippers, buyers, and countless millions of other men and women all along the 'food chain' will no longer have their old jobs, once most people have 'Copias. As such, I am sure it will be declared one of the most destructive inventions in the history of Labor.

Of course, to that I would simply reply: let them eat (nanofactured) cake. :)

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Of course, the repercussions of such a device upon the food industry will be earth-shattering.  Farmers, grocers, supermarkets, and a vast number of restaurants, along with their corresponding employees, shippers, buyers, and countless millions of other men and women all along the 'food chain' will no longer have their old jobs, once most people have 'Copias.  As such, I am sure it will be declared one of the most destructive inventions in the history of Labor.

Of course, to that I would simply reply:  let them eat (nanofactured) cake.  :)

I'll bet that creative chefs will lobby for laws protecting their intellectual property rights to their unique recipes. Let them eat copyrighted (nanofactured) cake. :)

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Re: Fast Food Technology

The LCD COD (Customer Order Display) is being used by most fast food restaurants in my part of the country. These are a good alternative to McDonalds' proposed system. You can look at the screen and verify that the order-taker entered your order accurately. Also, some of the machines show advertisements, suggestively sell upsizing or deserts, record statistics, etc. They can also be connected to the internet, function like regular computers. I just wanted to throw this in there because I had a job writing code for these things several years back, and I thought it was a really cool idea.

--Dan Edge

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I'll bet that creative chefs will lobby for laws protecting their intellectual property rights to their unique recipes.  Let them eat copyrighted (nanofactured) cake.  :)

Of course they will. In fact, all of the programs will be personally copyrighted, be they recipe or just raw food (for those that still like to prepare their own food - ie the 'old fashioned' way. :) ).

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