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American Fast Food Just Got Faster

Americans continue to flock to drive-thru restaurants. These meals on-the-go combine two of the nation's greatest loves: cars and fast food. But sometimes fast food is not fast enough for the high-speed American lifestyle. That has inspired entrepreneurs in Colorado to market a new technology that slices the time required to get meals into the hands of hungry customers.

So, when you pull up to a McDonald's restaurant in Colorado Springs, you will - as usual -- give your order into a microphone. But you might also end up with a side of honesty. Ask order-taker Dennis where he is, and he replies, "We're located in a call center."

That means he is not standing inside the restaurant wearing a wireless headset and grease-spattered uniform. Dennis and a dozen of his fellow order-takers are a short drive away in an office park. There they sit in a row of small, grey cubicles in a warehouse, confronting computer screens filled with cartoon images of McDonald's menu offerings. The walls are decorated with flags of Missouri and Minnesota, two other states that use call centers. Continually plugged in with their telephone headsets, the workers cheerfully take orders, clicking on images of McNuggets and cheeseburgers. Screens pop open allowing them to, as requested, hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, or shred it or request a full leaf.

Mindy Mazerall answers a ringing telephone. "Hi, this is Mindy," she says. "Can I help you?" She listens for a moment. "Would you like any dollar drinks or fries to go with that? Okay, your total is $2.13. Please pull forward. Thank you!" She encourages customers to buy more food or get a larger size…and many do. In fact, the average order taken by the call center's operators is 19 cents higher than ordinary drive-thrus, because the workers are focused on "selling up."

Order-takers make about the same wages as restaurant workers. But Ms. Mazerall, a former McDonald's restaurant employee, says she now has the best of both worlds. "I don't have to make the hamburgers," she explains. "I don't have to smell like it. I don't have to look at it. I can dress casual and sit on my butt. I don't have to work as hard."

But she does work. Her call center is staffed 24 hours a day, and the operators take upwards of 100 orders an hour, sending them to order screens inside nine McDonald's - located in Colorado and in Minnesota, 1,000 kilometers to the east. Another call center in Missouri covers eight McDonald's in that state.

The call center concept is the brainchild of 24-year-old Matt Favier. About four years ago, after hearing a local McDonald's franchise owner address his college marketing class, he convinced the businessman to take him on as an intern. Soon, he and Steve Bigari had devised a makeshift call center in the back of a McDonald's restaurant that grew into the independent interstate operation it is today. They were inspired by the frequent long delays at the drive-thru. "You'll see the cars line up and you will see often a car pull out, pull around and leave," notes Matt Favier. "All that is, is a lost opportunity."

Trying to prevent those losses by tying in to the call center system costs franchise owners at least $25,000 to set up. But those who have made the investment say it has been worthwhile because of sizable increases in accuracy, speed and sales. The call center frees restaurant workers from taking orders, allowing them to focus only on preparing and delivering the food. And the call center order-takers concentrate on getting the order right and getting it fast. Drive-thrus using the call center report that orders fly out the window 30 seconds faster than before. That is considered to be a big difference. "It's an eternity," says Matt Favier. "30 seconds is an eternity."

Sherri Day Scott, editor of Quick Service Restaurant magazine, says the best drive-thrus are seeking a delicate balance. "The Zen of drive-thru," she says, involves "finding that sweet spot where customer service comes together with speed." Ms. Scott says the industry is already pretty efficient - with the average drive-thru order taking precisely three minutes, 9.83 seconds. She wonders if shaving off that half-minute hurts customer service, "because I really do believe that customers want to interact with somebody who they feel can make a decision or solve a problem."

According to Matt Favier, few drive thru customers realize that the order takers are not inside the restaurant…and that's a good thing. "You want to minimize change," he says. "So the best part about the drive-thru [call center] is that the customer really doesn't see any difference at all. They have no idea that somebody halfway across the country is taking their order."

Since the call center operates around the clock, fewer restaurant employees are needed to keep the golden arches lit. This makes it easier for McDonald's to stay open into the wee hours and meet the growing demand for late night burgers.