Fast Food Fights Back

Attention, fast food purveyors: “Flippy” is ready to help prepare your customers’ burgers. This CaliBurger robot idea could be one way to hold off increasing competition from other — perhaps even more convenient — fast food options.
Your quick-serve customers now have a number of choices: A foray through the salad and entrée bar at Safeway or Harris Teeter in the same stop as picking up milk and bread? A meal-kit complete with instructions delivered right to the front door with no driving involved? Today’s harried, busy folks might prefer the supermarket or meal kit options versus a road trip out for a burger and fries at the local Mickey D’s or Wendy’s.

Case in Point
McDonalds Corporation posted losses for its fourth quarter, and its traffic has fallen more than 10 percent over the last four years. Other companies — Wendy’s, Burger King, etc. — face similar problems. Bountiful salad and entrée bars and pizza stands are prominently featured in supermarkets like Harris Teeter and Whole Foods. Increasingly popular meals-in-a-kit (Plated, Blue Apron, Home Chef) provide pre-measured ingredients with step-by-step instructions for easy, affordable, “home-made” dinners.
Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has gotten into the act. This spring, the Super Bowl champ’s company, TB12, partnered with veggie-oriented Purple Carrot to launch his own line of “Performance” meal kits.

Fighting Back
But fast food eateries — aka quick service restaurants (QSR) where customers usually order at a counter (or automobile window) and pay before eating — are fighting back. How? Mainly with increased automation and healthier options like salads, chicken, and fish. Panera Bread advertises that its meals are free from all artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, and colors. Chipotle has given GMOs the boot. And several burger chains, including Wendy’s and Five Guys, advertise that their burgers are “never frozen.” Next year, McDonald’s plans to tap only fresh beef for its Quarter Pounder. (Using non-frozen meat can carry E. coli risks, but that’s another issue.)

The CaliBurger Mode
This spring, CaliBurger — a global restaurant chain operating in a dozen countries with several local outlets — began dispensing its California-style burgers from Union Kitchen in the rapidly growing Ivy City neighborhood of Northeast DC. CaliBurger accepts scheduled advance orders and curbside pickup. This is the first step in the company’s plans to open multiple neighborhood storefronts later this year.
Said Vic Aulakh, CaliBurger principal and area developer:  “Always look towards the future.” Globally, Cali Group (which comprises CaliBurger) is always looking for ways to provide a tech-focused approach to serving food. Most recently, that includes the launch of “Flippy” — in select markets — an artificial intelligence-driven robot that will work alongside kitchen staff to grill burgers. “On the local level, we are reducing overhead by offering our burgers through delivery — so far, only out of Union Kitchen. That keeps our prices low while still providing a superior product directly to the customer. Eventually, we will adopt the brand’s self-service kiosks and gaming video walls in our upcoming neighborhood storefronts.”
“The Cali Group’s vision for the restaurant operating system also includes systems for ‘intelligent’ delivery of food to customers in local neighborhoods,” said John Miller, chairman of Cali group. “We are looking forward to gaining insights from the DC market to develop logistical and software solutions to enable cost effective delivery of food to nearby customers.”  For more information visit

Other Bells and Whistles to the Rescue?
McDonald’s has begun testing its long-awaited U.S. mobile ordering app. The mega chain is also introducing self-service kiosks. This does not necessarily put people out of work, we’re told. The updates can require additional personnel to greet customers and show them how to use the new gizmos.
Chipotle, Wendy’s, and Panera are following suit. Like McDonald’s, Wendy’s is using automation to reduce labor costs and attract younger customers. The chain is also adding self-service ordering kiosks for at least 1,000 restaurants, or about 15 percent of its stores, to be in place by the end of the year. Customers may still order at the counter.
In the fast food world nowadays, the chicken is crossing the road. Of course, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and others have been selling the bird — usually in nugget form — for years. With calls for healthier options, poultry chains like Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, KFC, and Chick-fil-A are lightening up their menus, offering broiled items and the like. In February 2014, Chick-fil-A announced plans to start raising chickens without antibiotics for its restaurants nationwide within five years. Chick-fil-A is reportedly the first quick service chain to make this commitment. With all the competition out there, fast food businesses are having to fight back to stay in the game.
• Think outside the box
• Think toward the future;
• Think healthy: when feasible, offer salads; broiled instead of fried items (as long as your customers approve);
• Seek out sustainable, humanely-raised food sources;
• Keep up with the latest technology, for example, phone apps, computers, and other automation, and train your employees accordingly;
• Offer delivery when possible; and• Don’t be afraid to try something new.
CELESTE MCCALL is a Washington, DC food and travel writer. Contact her at 202-547-5024.

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