The Thinker

The end of the fast food job

It seems even the fast food industry is not immune from outsourcing. I don’t know why this article surprised me, but it did. An excerpt:

Pull off U.S. Interstate Highway 55 near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and into the drive-through lane of a McDonald’s next to the highway and you’ll get fast, friendly service, even though the person taking your order is not in the restaurant – or even in Missouri.

The order taker is in a call center in Colorado Springs, more than 900 miles, or 1,450 kilometers, away, connected to the customer and to the workers preparing the food by high-speed data lines. Even some restaurant jobs, it seems, are not immune to outsourcing.

The man who owns the Cape Girardeau restaurant, Shannon Davis, has linked it and three other of his 12 McDonald’s franchises to the Colorado call center, which is run by another McDonald’s franchisee, Steven Bigari. And he did it for the same reasons that other business owners have embraced call centers: lower costs, greater speed and fewer mistakes.

Cheap, quick and reliable telecommunications lines let the order takers in Colorado Springs converse with customers in Missouri, take an electronic snapshot of them, display their order on a screen to make sure it is right, then forward the order and the photo to the restaurant kitchen. The photo is destroyed as soon as the order is completed, Bigari said. People picking up their burgers never know that their order traverses two states and bounces back before they can even start driving to the pickup window.

Davis said that he had dreamed of doing something like this for more than a decade. “We could not wait to go with it,” he added.

Bigari, who created the call center for his own restaurants, was happy to oblige – for a small fee per transaction. McDonald’s Corp. said it found the call center idea interesting enough to start a test with three stores near its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, with different software than that used by Bigari. But it added that it was more focused on other, continuing customer service improvements, like adding wireless Web access, or Wi-Fi, to restaurants, and introducing ways to let customers pay with credit and debit cards.

Jim Sappington, a McDonald’s vice president for information technology, said that it was “way, way too early” to tell if the call center idea would work across the 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.

You realize that it is now only a matter of time before you pull up to a fast food franchise and instead of your order being taken by a call center in Colorado Springs, someone will take it in Bangalore or Manila.

But this is just a start. I have to wonder what took the fast food industry so long. For an industry that works on tiny margins, low wages and lots of sweat I would have thought they would have outsourced their drive through order takers years ago. Like the amoral owners of Wal-Mart fast food owners have no shame. What they seemed to lack until now is some imagination on how to change their business model to pump up their profits. Shannon Davis has figured it out.

Of course I have to wonder why fast food restaurants require a human being to take orders at all. There are ways to remove the human being entirely from the drive thru order taking process. Most likely you pump and pay for your own gas. For now fast food restaurants can simply create an express drive through lane. In this lane you enter your order onto a touch pad screen. You can even pay for your order by inserting your debit or credit card into the convenient slot next to the screen. For a while restaurants may need a lane for those old fashioned types who can’t seem to place an order without talking to an actual human being. But that will change as we evolve into a cashless society.

But let’s think large. Actually interacting with a human being when getting fast food is so 20th century. Fast food restaurants could have us assemble our own orders too. Hamburgers and fries could pop down through chutes at the pickup window.

Doubtless there are lots of other ways to take the human out of preparing fast food too. Why not a robot at the French fry vat? Machines could also potentially cook, garnish, assemble and wrap hamburgers too.

By 2050 I predict that we will have the virtually manpower free fast food restaurant. Someone will still have to deliver the food to the stores, but perhaps programmed trucks could pull into automated docking stations at the back of a fast food restaurant. Then robotic arms could remove packets and place them into staging areas where other machines would draw on them as necessary. How efficient!

Those who quaintly want to eat at the restaurant could be accommodated without a single member of the service class. Greatly advanced Roombas could take care of sweeping the floors. Other robots could handle wiping counters. Some entrepreneur will doubtless create a restroom-cleaning robot too. Actually they have already created a self-cleaning restroom. But expect that fast food restaurant owners will be savvy enough to charge for the privilege.

Admittedly it will make things tough for youth looking for that first entry-level job or for that knowledge worker whose expertise has been outsourced overseas or is accomplished with artificial intelligence software. But that’s the price we pay for progress in this country. Whatever makes us more efficient is good. These were mindless, dead end jobs that no one could survive on anyhow. We might as well let the technology do it for us.

Watch out Wendy’s. McDonalds will be savvy enough to see the dollar signs in their shareholders’ eyes when this proves viable. Taco Bell has done most of their food preparation outside the restaurant for years. Yes, the first phase of the restaurant wars of the 21st century has begun. And fast food workers will be victims.


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