Technology

We wanted to make things worse, says McDonald’s, but it costs too much money

We wanted to make things worse, says McDonald's, but it costs too much money thumbnail
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Made by human hands for years to come?

(A screenshot from a McDonald’s ad.)

Chris Matyszczyk/Screenshot

Fast food companies like McDonald’s are doing quite well, thank you very much.

Except for inflation and the lack of human beings who want to work at McDonald’s, that is.

There’s another aspect, though, that brings more than a frisson of discomfort to Big Mac customers’ innards.

It’s the thought that McDonald’s will soon be no more than a cold-hearted vending machine, there to dispense burgers and dispense with smiles and humanity.

The company is already rigorously testing robot drive-thru ordering. It’s giving the impression that machines are a better way to make customers happy than are humans.

It verged on the staggering, therefore, when McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski was asked just how far the company’s robotic ambitions might stretch.

On McDonald’s second-quarter earnings call, an ever-alert analyst from an ever-inert bank asked this studious question: “Are there any capital or technology type of investments in coming years that could allow you to reduce your demand for labor while increasing overall customer service?”

You have to admire the philosophical emphases here. It posits the mere notion that robots can and will offer better customer service than humans.

Oddly, Kempczinksi countered with an equally philosophical response: “The idea of robots and all those things, while it maybe is great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants.”

It isn’t? But we were all girding our loins for more conversations with a Siri-type robot at the drive-thru, which might elicit just as much misunderstanding as a conversation with Siri at home. And then there was the glorious idea of robots flipping our burgers to perfection.

That isn’t going to happen? You’re not thinking this could be a money thing, are you?

Well, Kempczinski added: “The economics don’t pencil out, you don’t necessarily have the footprint, and there’s a lot of infrastructure investments that you need to do around your utility, around your HVAC systems. You’re not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon.”

Do I hear a hosanna or two? Do I sense a sigh of longing for continued interactions with humans who may not have left high school but really do want to make sure you get the right innards in your Big Mac?

Kempczinski conceded there was an increased role in technology.

Also: McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A both have a big problem. Only one has a solution

He mused: “There are things that you can do around systems and technology, especially taking advantage of all of this data that you’re collecting around customers that I think can make the job easier, things like scheduling, as an example, ordering as another example that will ultimately help reduce some of the labor demand in the restaurant.”

His ultimate solution, however, will lift the hearts, minds and perhaps even eyebrows of everyone clinging to the notion that humanity still has a chance.

“We’ve got to kind of get after this the old-fashioned way, which is just making sure we’re a great employer and offering our crew a great experience when they come into the restaurants,” he said.

Well, I never. What a turn-up. Can you believe that robots can’t replace humans because they’re too expensive? Can you believe that some corporations realize they have to become wonderful employers, or no one will want to work for them?

I do adore hope. I think I’ll go to McDonald’s and hope the ice cream machine is working.

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