McDonald’s may have come up with a new twist on the fast-food restaurant experience that has nothing to do with what’s on the menu — doing away with interaction between customers and employees.
The giant chain next Tuesday plans to operate what it calls a “customized digital Big Mac ATM” at its 540 Commonwealth Ave. location in Kenmore Square. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., the high-tech vending machine will dispense Big Macs — at no charge.
But that doesn’t mean lunch will be free. To get a Mac Jr. or a Grand Mac — both new sizes — customers will have to enter their Twitter handles on the machine’s touchscreen. Before they can even take a bite out of a burger, the machine will generate a tweet from their personal account that reads: “Check out the new Big Mac.”
“It’s really just a fun way to be modern and progressive,” said Vince Spadea, a McDonald’s franchisee who is part of a cooperative of owners. “I think we’ll have lines out the door.”
The machine, Spadea said, is being used primarily as a marketing tool, not the first step toward employee-less McDonald’s restaurants.
But Timothy Carone, a University of Notre Dame professor and author of the book “Future Automation Changes to Lives and to Businesses,” says such technology is about more than marketing. The fast-food industry is at the forefront of the trend toward automation, Carone said. “Things like this are going to be in our future, so you have to accept it,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”
Debate about labor automation has escalated nationwide in recent years as fast-food workers and unions have campaigned for a $15-an-hour minimum wage — successfully in some cases, although increases will be phased in over years. But Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s pick for labor secretary — and chief executive of the Hardee’s fast-food chain — opposes a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“Increasingly, low-skill workers will not only have to compete with each other for jobs at higher wages, but also with computers,” wrote Darrell M. West, founding director at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, in a blog post last year. “Staying competitive in a changing job market will require workers to specialize in tasks that computers cannot easily perform.”
While not on the scale of the futuristic HBO series “Westworld,” many restaurants already use technology for processes that used to involve humans.
Eatsa, a small San Francisco restaurant chain that sells healthy fast food, takes customers’ orders on iPads, without a human intervening. Customers order dishes like “No Worry Curry” on an iPad. They pick up their food from a “personalized cubby,” according to the company’s website, without dealing with any employees. Eatsa calls it “pure magic.”
Last spring, a robotic “Spyce Kitchen” created by MIT engineering students was used to serve meals to students.
Carone said increasing automation will not necessarily lessen labor costs, because of the maintenance automated systems can require. And he said automation can allow businesses to better predict food costs, including by delivering uniform portion sizes.
“We’re in the exploratory phase,” he said. “Eventually, businesses will figure out what kind of automation people like and what they don’t like.”
And even the newest technology often requires some degree of human interaction. For instance, burgers may pop out of the Boston McDonald’s machine unassisted next week, but they’ll be loaded into it by actual people. For now, at least.Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.