Local News

Taking 'fast' out of fast food

SEBRING - The remodeled Arby's in south Sebring displays renaissance artwork. The brand-new Burger King a few blocks north has facing couches between a coffee table. And Wendy's in Avon Park completely refurbished with wood tables and chairs, soft bench seats, two leather-like lounge chairs.

Wendy's, BK and McDonald's offer free wi-fi to phones, pads and computers. Is the whole fast food industry slowing down?

"We want customers to have their meal, to able to sit down and relax for a minute," said Debbie Salkill, director of marketing for Quality Dining Inc., an Indiana franchisee that bought the Burger King stores about 18 months ago in Tampa, Hardee and Highlands County.

Notice also not only the earthy tones, but the pepper reds and greens and the earthy potato tones. And the big-screen TV and the flashing message boards that invite customers to enjoy the 50-cent ice cream cones, and the all-new Satisfries (30 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories than BK's current potatoes, and 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than Ronald's, across the street.)

Fast food has become more Panera-like.

As USA Today reported in a May 2012 story, "Restaurant giant Panera Bread made a big business bet eight years ago to offer free wi-fi to its customers as a way to boost sales. The fresh-breads eatery aimed to court customers in between meals."

Monthly connections to Panera's wireless network at its 1,565 locations grew to 2.7 million sessions in April from 2.2 million a year ago, Panera told USA Today in 2012. In fact, wi-fi is such an attraction, Panera began limiting sessions to 30 minutes between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sales rose 15 percent.

Salkill didn't reveal figures at Burger King but imparted the idea: "Maybe they will digest their food and come back and get something else."

It didn't take long for fast food barons to grasp the wi-fi idea: Starbucks and McDonald's jumped in. According to ABI Research, there were 6.3 million free wi-fi spots in America: 23,000 belong to Starbucks, 11,000 at McDonald's.

In Highlands County, Wendy's had given away Internet signals for years, followed by Burger King, Denny's and KFC. These days, it's more remarkable to find fast food restaurants without free wi-fi.

The contrast from the old philosophy is inescapable: hard plastic chairs and benches that get less comfortable by the minute. The point was to move customers in and out in 30 minutes. The fast food industry has changed its thinking.

"McDonald's is undergoing a process of redesign," the Romanian design and architecture website Freshome.com reported. "The new concept is revolving around the idea of a community centre, a place for young people to hang out. All the plastic will be replaced with clean and modern lines, wood, brick and softer lighting from modern lamps... The emblematic red-and-yellow colours will be revamped to terra cotta, olive and sage green. Three major areas will give customers more choices: a linger area that features comfortable armchairs and sofas and Wi-fi connections, a bar-like area, (and a) grab-and-go zone with plasma TVs for the people that eat alone."

"People eat with their eyes first," freshome.com quoted president and COO Don Thompson. "If you have a restaurant that is appealing, contemporary, and relevant both from the street and interior, the food tastes better."

McDonald's redesigned its Avon Park and south Sebring stores a year ago with a focus on larger tables and benches for community seating. Customers have enjoyed it so much, the South Sebring McDonald's posted signs asking patrons not to loiter.

The new look is "cafe style," Salkill said.

"We have free Internet because we know people are constantly looking at technology," she said. "We want them to enjoy the experience, but also the level of the food. We want to make it a memorable experience."

She summed up the point of a "memorable experience" later in two words, "repeat business."