Is This What the McDonald’s of the Future Looks Like?

Are you ready to order your 'custom' burger topped with white cheddar and chili-lime tortilla strips off an iPad?

(Photo: Lauri Patterson/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

McDonald’s is expanding its test of a supersecret restaurant concept in Southern California—so startlingly new, in fact, that it hardly sounds like a McDonald’s at all.

First, you order your burger off an iPad (and in this day and age, nothing apparently says “with it” like tablet ordering). But if this were just about a touch screen, you could chalk it up to gimmickry. No, the whole concept challenges the core of what made McDonald’s into the world’s No. 1 burger slinger, and it could very well signal something of an existential crisis going on behind the Golden Arches.

At a McDonald’s in Laguna Niguel, Calif.—and soon at an unspecified number of other test locations—you don’t just order your run-of-the-mill Quarter Pounder or Big Mac off an iPad but a “custom” burger topped with such un-McDonald’s fixings as sharp white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, grilled mushrooms, or applewood-smoked bacon, according to the Orange County Register. Apparently there are 20 (yes, 20!) toppings and sauces to choose from. Confused by the ordering system? Never fear, because “employees wearing fine-dining-style black and white chef’s aprons are there to help customers use the touch-screen menu.”

In a world where the once humble burger, a staple of American cuisine, has long since gone gourmet, all this may not seem revolutionary—but for McDonald’s it is. This is the chain that brought Henry Ford–style assembly line production to the restaurant experience, churning out a limited array of meat-between-the-bun offerings meant to be fast (and cheap), not fancy.

But wait. Haven’t we been here before? Some 40 years ago, rival Burger King challenged Mickey D’s supremacy when it launched the über-successful “Have It Your Way” campaign.

Admittedly, “have it your way” pretty much referred to extra pickles or no onions—not middlebrow additions like chili-lime tortilla strips and creamy garlic sauce. Despite the tagline (which BK resurrected as recently as 2005), the original campaign was more about emphasizing that Burger King’s burgers were made to order, rather than premade like McDonald’s and left to languish under a heat lamp for some god-awful duration.

Oh, how times have changed. Not only do today’s Millennials expect seat belts in their cars, nonsmoking flights, and to never have to wear a mock turtleneck with a tweed sport coat—they demand fast food that wows their taste buds and the ability to order according to their picky personal preferences.

McDonald’s expanded beta test of its newfangled “build-your-own-burger-with-an-iPad” concept reflects a push by the chain “to adapt to the growing trend toward customization in the fast-food industry,” reports the Associated Press. “The popularity of Chipotle and Subway, for instance, is largely due to the fact that people can dictate exactly what they want on their burritos and sandwiches.”

And right about now, McDonald’s is in desperate need of tapping into some sort of “growing trend,” because when it comes to Big Macs, the trend of late has been anything but growth. January's sales at U.S. locations that have been open for at least one year declined by 3.3 percent, which the chain attributed to bad weather across much of the country. But McDonald’s has been suffering from more than just the winter blues; customer traffic declined 1.6 percent in the U.S. last year. The chain's ballyhooed revamp of its Dollar Menu (which was pretty much to make it into a “Handful of Things at a Dollar but Most Everything Is More Than a Dollar” menu) was met by customers with a collective shrug, and the chain has had to embark on a “chicken wing clearance sale,” as Bloomberg Businessweek puts it, to rid itself of its failed Mighty Wings.

Apparently, the future can't come soon enough for McDonald's.

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