Soon, you could walk into a McDonald’s, sit down, maybe play a video game for a few minutes, then have your food brought to you.
At least that's the vision of Atif Rafiq, the first chief digital officer at McDonald’s, for how the company’s stores could evolve by 2020. We caught up with Rafiq at South by Southwest—which McDonald’s has attended for the first time amid a two-year streak of disappointing sales—and he described how the company plans to leverage kiosks, smartphones, and wearable to change the way people order and eat at McDonald’s restaurants around the world. In the U.S., all experiences would work through an app in development that knows your identity and tracks your order history.
"We see the experience being made so much better through technology," Rafiq says. "It’s an environment where it’s really built around you as opposed to operations of a restaurant.
What does he mean? Today, when you go to a McDonald’s, you probably walk to the counter, order, wait by the counter for a while for it to be prepared, and then grab a tray or bag with your food. In some cases, McDonald’s has set up quick-order kiosks if you’d like to avoid the counter.
At the McDonald's of tomorrow, restaurants will have a standardized set of hardware and software that the company has been developing through its global digital team. That hardware would include kiosks similar or identical to those already on the market. You could walk up, tap your phone to it, and sync your account via an app. From there, the screen would not just show a stock menu, but provide your order history, and offer Amazon-like recommendations.
"In other cases, you might have a beacon," Rafiq says, referring to wireless proximity sensors that work with smartphones to trigger events. "You can order [ahead of time] in your app, have the phone in your pocket, you arrive and go right to your seat, we send your order to the kitchen, and table service delivers it with a smile."
This latter scenario is what Rafiq calls the "perfect union of humanity and technology," because he doesn’t allow digital automation to overrule the friendliness of hospitality. "I think it’d be the wrong way to go about it, to take that human out of the loop," he says.
During that two- to-three minute wait for your meal, McDonald’s could offer all sorts of entertainment at your seat—like the Happy Table, a concept that turns your dining table into a gaming platform. (It launched exclusively in Singapore in 2013, but it's the sort of idea that McDonald’s would like to scale faster to more stores.)
Eventually the food arrives, then 10 minutes later when you’re actually done with your burger, a glance at the McDonald’s app will have a set of new recommendations: desserts. With a tap, you place your order and wait for it to be delivered, too. "It’s about creating these digital interaction points so we can be smart enough to know where you are in the journey," Rafiq says. (Yes, Rafiq frequently refers to eating at a McDonald’s as a "journey.")
It’s worth noting that the automated, simply walk-in-the-door-and-be-fed ordering experience that Rafiq described is almost identical to that of a Disney MagicBand, which allow diners to walk into the Disney World Be Our Guest restaurant, sit at their table, and just have food delivered. Rafiq doesn’t find it necessary for a customer to have a highly specialized MagicBand, or even an Apple Watch to make that magic possible. He’s happy to snag relevant information from the phone in your pocket—which prompts the question, what could wearable technology bring to the McDonald’s experience that a phone could not?
"They have different purposes. You won’t be able to input your credit card on your wearable," he explains. "But you could wave! A wearable for payment or fetching someone to give you service, absolutely, those are all things that make a whole lot of sense."
If that response sounds blasé, it’s only because Rafiq doesn’t imagine the diverse McDonald’s clientele—what he likens to a website with half a billion unique visitors as year—as offering customers one mandatory digital experience, but accommodating any number of customers wielding different technologies that walk into their door.
"The fun part is, there’s a new technology to look at every week, every month," Rafiq says. "So we’re open for business! Hopefully the best technology will win. And whatever’s out there, we’re going to be there trying it early."