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How fast-food’s sleek redesign could signal a grim labor landscape

Strip away the Crunchwraps, the Big Macs, the PlayPlaces, the sentient taste buds and the nihilistic Facebook feeds and you’re left with American fast-food’s three cardinal virtues: profitability, uniformity and automation. 

Dotting the history of fast-food are numerous examples of both corporate leaders and franchise owners steering their restaurants towards providing ostensibly more streamlined, though increasingly depersonalized, experiences. For instance, in 2004, the New York Times published an article about how a McDonald’s franchisee located in Missouri outsourced his drive-thru order-taking to a call center in Colorado, a decision that, he told the publication, enabled him to take an additional 30 orders per hour with fewer errors. 

“People picking up their burgers never know that their order traverses two states and bounces back before they can even start driving to the pickup window,” wrote Michael Fitzgerald for the Times. 

Other locations, and even other restaurants, quickly followed suit. According to a later report, some McDonald’s locations in Oregon, Washington and North Dakota also relied on call centers for order-taking, while a few Jack-in-the-Box locations tried the drive-thru technology as well. This is the way that it goes in fast-food; one restaurant brand makes a move and, if it has even the shimmer of success, imitators are quick to follow. 

We saw this with the Chicken Sandwich Wars, and then again with the race towards fashion collaborations and chain gift shops. Fast-food restaurants are all even starting to look the same — and often that means they look like places where actual people don’t work. 

If you want to see a grim preview of the potential future of the fast-food labor landscape, look no further than the homogeneity of remodeled restaurant dining rooms. 

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Step into your local Wendy’s this summer and you may notice that the restaurant looks different — revamped, perhaps. That’s because the popular burger chain is in the process of modernizing their restaurants nationwide, making sure they look more contemporary. Gone are the nostalgic sun-lit solariums bordered by fake hanging plants. In their place, are muted paint tones, touch-screens and sleek wooden booths. 

If you want to see a grim preview of the potential future of the fast-food labor landscape, look no further than the homogeneity of remodeled restaurant dining rooms.

The redesign, announced late last year, places an “emphasis on convenience, speed and accuracy,” CNN reported in August 2022. Restaurants will have new pick-up windows for delivery orders, so delivery drivers don’t even have to enter to grab their food. They will also have a new pick-up shelf and parking spots for mobile orders, along with a more technologically advanced kitchen and a swankier interior.

“To accelerate our business and expand our footprint across the globe, we must consistently meet the needs of our customers however they choose to engage with Wendy’s, whether that’s through a digital platform or in the drive-thru,” Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor said in a press release.

Wendy’s isn’t the only fast food restaurant that has altered their dining room to focus more on digital orders and automated processes, augmented by minimalist decor dictated by global design portfolios.

The chain’s redesign efforts came after several other fast food spots announced their plans to expand and rebrand their image. In May 2016, Taco Bell unveiled four new “urban edge” restaurant design concepts in hopes of redefining the overall fast food experience, both in the present and future. The chain also expanded with several new “Cantina” locations in urban settings that could serve alcoholic beverages. At the time, Taco Bell said it planned to continue remodeling older locations and open 2,000 new restaurant locations by 2022.

And of course, there’s McDonald’s, which in 2018 announced a $6 billion plan to overhaul most of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants by 2020. The makeover included new furniture and decor, remodeled counters for table service and “refreshed” exterior designs. The fast-food chain also shared plans to install digital kiosks for ordering, customizing and paying for meals, as well as easier-to-read digital menu boards in restaurants and drive-through lanes. Additionally, they planned designated parking spots for customers who order food through the chain’s mobile app.

The redesigns are driven in part by a desire for uniformity. As one of the members of McDonald’s retail design team wrote regarding the modernization efforts: 

McDonald’s, the company that put ‘fast food’ on the map over 60 years ago, knows how to make a hamburger with exact precision taste the same, whether you’re in Tokyo or San Francisco. But when it came to restaurant design, no two were the same. As the brand expanded globally, the US market realized that it needed to modernize experience and create consistency.

However, some of the dining room redesigns — which seemingly prioritize efficiency over the human touch — come at a time when tensions about the future of fast food labor are reaching a critical point. As Politico reported last week, a decadelong quest to organize fast food workers in the state has extended into the final weeks of California’s legislative session this month. 

“It is a watershed moment that industry leaders fear could have national ramifications. As a labor stronghold, California may be best positioned to be the first state in the country to deliver the long-elusive goal of unionized fast food workers,” Politico’s Jeremy B. White wrote. “But that has unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive from a franchise industry determined to protect its business model and confine the threat to California.” 

Meanwhile, fast-food employees in other cities across the country have gone on strike, pushing for higher wages and better working conditions, during what Bloomberg reported as the busiest year for strikes since 2000. 

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In December, McDonald’s launched their first largely automated test location in Fort Worth, Texas, which, as The Guardian reported, drew the ire of activists “who criticized the fast food corporation for entertaining the idea of a costly automatic restaurant rather than pay its workers a living wage.” 

“Smaller than a typical McDonald’s, the location is geared towards customers on the go rather than those who plan to dine inside,” the publication reported. “It limits interactions between team members and customers and uses ‘enhanced technology that allows the restaurant team to begin preparing customers’ orders when they’re near the restaurant.'” 

Some of the dining room redesigns — which seemingly prioritize efficiency over the human touch — come at a time when tensions about the future of fast food labor are reaching a critical point. 

While a spokesperson for McDonald’s told The Guardian that the concept was “not fully automated” and employed a number of humans behind-the-scenes, and while technology critics have asserted that some of the consternation surrounding the development is overblown, many fast-food restaurants are turning to technology back-of-house to keep costs low and address the remnants of a pandemic-driven labor shortage. 

In January, CNBC reported that Miso Robotics’ Flippy 2 (a burger-flipping robot that uses artificial intelligence, computer vision technology and a mechanical arm) had been deployed to Chipotle, Wing Zone and White Castle, the latter saying that they planned to install 100 Flippy robots to work fry stations nationwide. “The tide has turned, this is no longer a question of are robotics coming to the industry,” said Jake Brewer, chief strategy officer at Miso Robotics. “It’s a foregone conclusion. The question is at what pace and in what form.”

According to the report, up to 82% of restaurant positions could, to some extent, be replaced by robots, and automation could save U.S. fast-food restaurants more than $12 billion in annual wages, per the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates. 

This isn’t just a back-of-house issue. Yum Brands is the parent company to Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut and during a monthly earnings call, the company’s chief financial officer, Chris Turner, reportedly said that he wants one part of all customer transactions to have a digital component, meaning that orders are processed through a restaurant’s website or mobile app, or at a restaurant kiosk. 

The company has a goal of going entirely digital, though no timeline for that transition was made public. Regardless, it’s another sign that the fast-food restaurant of the future is fast approaching — and these sleek remodels are one way corporations are preparing for that, with or without their current labor force. 

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