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McDonald's Innovation Center goal: Better service at restaurants

Tucked away in a warehouse, McDonald's tests and tweaks new technology, equipment

Inside this nondescript warehouse some 30 minutes from McDonald's suburban headquarters, uniformed crew members cook burgers, sling fries and hand food to customers.

But here, cashiers accept fake money. Workers and customers wear tracking chips to record their movements. And customers mimic going through the drive-thru in plastic chairs, not cars.

Welcome to the Innovation Center in Romeoville, where the world's largest fast-food operator studies, dissects and tweaks current routines as well as proposed ideas that could quicken the operations at some 34,000 McDonald's restaurants worldwide.

The center is far enough from McDonald's Oak Brook headquarters that it can run on its own, yet close enough for interaction when needed, said Laurie Gilbert, a 22-year McDonald's veteran who is vice president of restaurant innovation.

"There was a very intentional decision made not to have it be right there, so we could create a bit of a different culture, have a safe place to experiment and learn," Gilbert said. "Make no mistake, it's McDonald's through and through, you can feel it. And yet, with our own flavor."

Opened in 2001, the Innovation Center brings together a variety of players, from engineers, researchers and designers to visiting vendors and franchisees, as they work to improve the burger giant's service.

The mission is particularly important now because McDonald's is grappling with its longest stretch of declining sales at long-standing restaurants in more than a decade. Shortening service times, ensuring that kitchens and crew members are ready to prepare new foods and drinks, and updating the ordering process are all key to that goal.

Most days, at least one of the mock restaurants housed in the warehouse buzzes like an actual McDonald's during the breakfast, lunch or dinner rush.

Every move the crew takes can be studied, by people watching from inside the kitchen, across the counter, from an observation deck above, or later, by reviewing video. Those tracking tags worn by workers and customers log how long it takes an order to make its way through the kitchen, through the mock drive-thru or across the counter.

Customers, played by retirees or students, don't always choose their meals. Many times, orders are re-created from a previous day at an actual restaurant.

"The focus is really on what customers are looking for," said Melody Roberts, McDonald's senior director of experience design innovation, noting that, consumer preference for custom drinks, for example, would shape the way kitchen space is allocated.

When McDonald's wanted to offer wraps in more restaurants, it came here to figure out how to teach workers to be able to prepare them in under a minute. When it was preparing to open its largest restaurant, for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it took about a week to assemble a mock version that stretched from one side of the warehouse to the other. When it was tinkering with a new way to improve service at its location in Chicago's Midway Airport, it adopted a new system that put a large order number on each receipt. This allowed customers to step away from the counter and return when their numbers were called. Innovation Center staff even hauled in their own luggage to simulate the airport experience.

Each year, McDonald's operators from 25 to 30 countries rotate through the center, spending a week in Romeoville on their own projects. That could include finding ways to train staff to handle menu changes, evaluating a redesigned restaurant layout or even monitoring the impact of an ice cream promotion on service levels. Several tests can be conducted each day.

One week this month, a team from Australia was testing how to incorporate a customized gourmet burger into its restaurants. The following week, teams from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland came to do their own tests. The mock drive-thru can be moved to accommodate the side of the car used by a driver in a specific country.

Though McDonald's tinkers with its food in facilities around the world, the 38,000-square-foot Innovation Center is the only place where restaurant setup is worked on in such detail.

In the 13 years that the current center has been operating, it has had some changes, including the addition of more kitchens. A second floor was added with the observation deck, desk space and meeting rooms meant to inspire, named after innovators such as Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. About 80 crew members and five managers work in the warehouse's test restaurants.

Ed Bridgman, senior director of innovation and operations, got his start working at a McDonald's restaurant 40 years ago. Together, he and others at the center hold 49 patents in areas such as kitchen operating systems and drive-thrus, dozens of which are displayed on the building's walls.

"I've been fortunate to go to some large manufacturing innovation centers," Bridgman said. "This one is much more interactive and trying to deal with, from my opinion, a much more complicated set of environments."

Take, for example, the temporary restaurant for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Bridgman and others worked on how many registers it should have, along with kitchen production, beverage machinery and space for ordering.

"On any given time of day when it was operating, there may have been 300 to 400 people operating it and several thousand people visiting," Bridgman said.

Though the Innovation Center can help the collaborative process, there can be conflicts when bringing together experts on technology, engineering and design, as well as trying to solve problems for dozens of countries, Roberts said.

"In some markets, our family business and the in-store experience remains paramount. In other markets, convenience and the way convenience is evolving" are the focus, Roberts said. "It's not as simple as we're going to do just one thing."

Some sophisticated pieces of equipment can take three to four years to create and test. Processes are tweaked multiple times before they make their way into restaurants. Other proposed changes don't make it out of the building.

A few years ago, for example, McDonald's toyed with a dispenser that would put the right number of Chicken McNuggets into a basket before cooking, rather than having an employee count them out.

"The nugget dispenser worked, but at the end of the day, it didn't really make our crew's life that much easier," Gilbert said. That project, as she put it, is "on the shelf."

So, too, is a fully automated fryer for french fries. The equipment "proved a little too sophisticated for the restaurants," but parts of it made their way into fry stations around the world, Gilbert said.

Another shelved project, at least for now, involved a 3-D printer housed in what looked like a giant Happy Meal box to create toys for children's meals in the restaurants. A version of it sits upstairs in the center.

McDonald's executives said they believe their space is the most advanced in the industry.

Rival Wendy's has a culinary innovation center attached to its Ohio headquarters, said Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito. The center, opened in 2003, has a setup replicating the cooking area of a Wendy's restaurant and has allowed the company to double its amount of consumer testing. Wendy's also tests new products, equipment and technology at an updated restaurant across the street from its suburban Columbus headquarters, Esposito said.

Burger King officials declined to comment.

At McDonald's, Gilbert said she typically spends about four days a week at the center and one day in Oak Brook, where team members working on areas such as architecture and design are based. She looks for ideas while doing almost anything — visiting restaurants and retailers, signing up for retailers' apps on her phone, going to trade shows and even vacationing with her husband and two daughters.

Before she took on her role a few years ago, Gilbert spent a little more than six months as a crew member in restaurants on the West Side of Chicago.

"You can watch our operations all day long, but you get a whole different insight when you have a chance to actually work all of those stations," she said. One of the hardest things, she added, was wrapping sandwiches the proper way during the breakfast rush.

"I loved making the food, but when you're working at breakfast … the way you have to set up the wrap is four different ways, depending on which sandwich, and that drove me crazy," she said.

Gilbert said that though there are a wide range of positions at the center, such as engineering, operations, technology and research, she looks for similar characteristics in applicants for any job: those who are "naturally curious" and like to solve problems.

"My favorite interview question is: If I gave you a few months and some money to work on anything you saw in a McDonald's restaurant, what would you want to work on?"

jwohl@tribune.com

Twitter @jessicawohl

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