Making fast food faster

New technology is lowering costs and boosting sales at quick-service chains.

New technology is lowering costs and boosting sales at quick-service chains

An employee of Zaxby's uses the HyperActive Bob display to cook chicken. ((HyperActive Technologies))

R. Craig Coulter believes he is the only person in history to have worked at McDonald's while holding a PhD in robotics. The distinction gave him the special honour of earning $6.50 US an hour, rather than the standard starting wage of $6.25 US.

"I had dinner with the dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon a year after that happened and I told him I had empirical evidence for what a PhD at Carnegie Mellon is actually worth," he says.

Jokes aside, Coulter didn't work at McDonald's for six months because he couldn't find a job. He was conducting research on a system he hopes will revolutionize the fast food industry: robotic automation.

Despite being one of the world's largest industries, fast food restaurants still depend far too much on human involvement — and are therefore susceptible to human error, which Coulter says results in costly inefficiencies. At a time when food prices are rising, it's especially important to eliminate any factors that cost restaurants money.

"It's the last $100-billion-a-year industry on the planet that hasn't automated," he says.

In response, Coulter in 2001 founded HyperActive Technologies Inc. with Kerien "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, a fellow graduate from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon.

The idea to apply robotics technology to fast food — or quick-service restaurants, as the industry refers to itself — came when Fitzpatrick had his order screwed up while frequenting a drive-thru. Rather than cursing out the hapless employees for their inability to get his order right, Fitzpatrick began thinking about why a simple process like a drive-thru wasn't automated.

The duo consulted with fast food industry analysts and came to the conclusion that not much could be done to improve the efficiency of the restaurant kitchens themselves. They also concluded, however, that visitors become customers as soon as they enter the restaurant's property — in many cases, the parking lot — yet they are not interacted with until they reach the counter to place their order. The space in between is valuable time that could be spent preparing food for the customer.

"They are unplaced orders that are still on the restaurant property… basically your sales backlog," Coulter says.

That space was therefore ripe to bring in automation efficiencies, so HyperActive Bob was born. "Bob" is a robotic sensor system that uses cameras mounted on a restaurant's roof to detect how many vehicles and people are entering the property, then tells the staff inside via computer screens how much food, and what kind, to prepare.

Customer profiling too difficult

While early versions of the system tried to profile vehicles and guess what the occupants might order — a minivan entering the lot could indicate children approaching, for example — Bob now works on statistics derived solely from traffic volumes.

"Statistically, it would be very difficult with an individual coming into the restaurant to say, 'That guy is going to want a cheeseburger,'" Coulter says. "But if you've got 10 people coming into the restaurant, you know that two or three of them are going to want a cheeseburger and some of them are going to want chicken."

Bob has been enthusiastically embraced by Zaxby's, a U.S. chicken chain, in 140 of its restaurants. The chain, which prides itself on the high quality of its chicken, used to avoid preparing food until the customer had ordered in order to preserve freshness. That resulted in long wait times, and restaurants even had signs up warning customers that their food may take a while.

Over the past few years, Zaxby's restaurants have used Bob to start the cooking process when customers are detected entering the property, significantly reducing those wait times. Bob has even resulted in the chain taking down its warning signs, Coulter says.

"When you think about quick-service, it's really a manufacturing enterprise," he says. "We've enabled just-in-time manufacturing to be applied in the restaurant industry."

The system is in various stages of testing with every major quick-service chain and has won approval from CKE Restaurants, which runs the Hardee's and Carl's Jr. franchises in the United States, he says. Each chain is using Bob in different ways — some, like Zaxby's, are using it to shorten wait times while others are using it to eliminate waste food, which results from incorrect anticipations by staff.

McDonald's, the world's largest quick-service chain, doesn't yet endorse HyperActive Bob. Dave Rogers, senior director of business integration for McDonald's Canada, says the chain isn't even testing it north of the border, opting instead for a staff scheduling system based on sales statistics. Canadian McDonald's restaurants use previous sales data to anticipate busy periods, and staff accordingly.

"We're not looking at anything from a sensor perspective," he says. "In a lot of cases, that's generally too late for you to react to it, which is why we're doing more on the proactive side of the measurement and the projections of what our sales are going to be."

Technology key for McDonald's

McDonald's is no stranger to technology, however. The chain has an experimental restaurant in Romeoville, Ill., about 50 kilometres southwest of its Chicago headquarters, where innovations are tested before they are tried in real outlets.

The operation has spawned a number of time- and money-saving technologies that are in use around the world, including computer-controlled drive-thrus that allow two cars to order at a time and automatic drink dispensers, which are now in almost one-third of the 900 traditional McDonald's restaurants in Canada.

McDonald's is hoping that self-service kiosks, currently being tested in France, can help ease lineups in restaurants. ((Carlos Osorio/Associated Press))

"We don't touch anything," says Barry Desclouds, regional vice-president for Ontario, of the drink dispensers. "That's a big time saver."

The innovations aren't just about saving time, but also money. In the United States, McDonald's has experimented with outsourcing drive-thru orders from one state to another, where a driver in Hawaii might have their order taken by a person working in a call centre in California. Such a system allows for specialized order takers who are free from the distractions going on in the restaurant, which ensures fewer botched orders, and opens the door for taking advantage of lower wages in certain states.

One of the chain's most promising technologies undergoing testing in southern France are self-service kiosks, where customers order and pay for their food at a computer terminal and then pick their meals up at the counter. The kiosks could be particularly useful in a multicultural country such as Canada, where lines can be slowed by language problems, Desclouds says.

"It takes away the pressure of the customer getting to the front of the line and saying, 'Okay, I'm up.' That's something we're looking at very seriously," he says. "It takes away that interaction and now the order is very clear.. it's pretty slick."

Tim Hortons Inc. is also testing the kiosks, but spokesperson Rachel Douglas declined to comment on any experimental technology.

TimCard to speed lineups

The chain also made moves recently to speed its transaction processes with the introduction of the credit-card-like TimCard in October. The card can be charged up with credit via the company's website and then swiped in restaurants in lieu of payment, which should help ease what has become a common site at Tim Hortons at certain times of the day: long lineups.

"TimCard was launched to offer our customers a faster and easier way to pay," Douglas says. "As TimCard becomes more popular, we anticipate it will help with speed of service, especially in the drive-thru and during peak times."

Some chains — including McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts — have also begun replacing traditional punch-in clocks with biometrics, or sensors that read employees' finger- and handprints. Last year, McDonald's in Venezuela reported it cut payroll costs by 22 per cent annually after installing biometric terminals, which prevent "buddy punching," where an employee's friend logs in and out on their behalf.

The biometrics also save the chains money by removing the need for managers to oversee staff attendance, analysts say.

"You'd save not just on payroll expenses but on supervision," says Peter Cheesman, marketing director for the International Biometric Group in New York. "If you don't need someone watching people clock in and clock out… you can save thousands of man hours."

For McDonald's — and the industry at large — continual technological improvements play a vital role in lowering costs, raising sales and retaining customers. Without it, the chains may not have a future.

"We look at it as an incredibly important enabler to run our restaurants more efficiently. We're always looking for ways to save seconds," Desclouds says. "Our customers tell us on a regular basis that one of the reasons they come to us is for our efficiency and ability to get them in and out and on with their busy lives. Technology plays a huge part in that customer satisfaction."