Fast-food market cooks up ideas

As consumer tastes change, fast-food chains are having to rethink their offers. Hannah Booth reports

The humble hamburger is changing. Not only is an order now likely to be accompanied by the question ‘do you want fruit with that?’, but the experience of eating in fast-food restaurants may be becoming a more pleasant one.

If you hadn’t noticed, fast-food stores are trying to shake off their homogenised, plastic heavy, neon-lit interiors along with their standardised approach to food. Last October, über-chain McDonald’s opened a ‘McDonald’s with the Diner inside’ concept in the US, followed a month later by a theatrical Broadway-themed restaurant with plasma screens in New York.

This summer, it’s the UK’s turn. The company is unveiling three interiors concepts to try to revive its flagging appeal among a broader cross-section of consumers and fast-food chain Pizza Hut is experimenting with pilot interiors in a bid to win more customers (see News).

But McDonald’s sales have fallen for the 14th straight month and the chain this year reported its first loss since it went public almost 40 years ago. The competition is struggling too. Burger King owner Diageo is preparing the chain for buy-out following poor operating profits in 2001 (Source: Mintel).

So can fast-food brands shake off their negative connotations? And what role does design play – are revamped interiors and refreshed brands going to be enough to convince an increasingly health-focused consumer that fast food is still worth a bite?

Soft Moss design director Mark Brown is working with McDonald’s on its interiors revamps. He says fast-food restaurants ‘must begin to recognise they are retailers’.

‘[Fast food restaurants] are competing with Gap and HMV for consumers’ time,’ explains Brown. ‘The main players – McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut – are under attack like any other retailer at the moment. None of these big brands can go on as before.’

But he counsels that ‘retailers’ must try not be reactionary. ‘It’s exactly what Marks & Spencer did when it was in trouble.’

Brown believes McDonald’s should focus on its original values. ‘It’s the place people go to for hamburgers, so it should stick to what it’s good at and create the best burgers around,’ he says.

Adcock Clayton director Neil Clayton agrees. ‘I don’t know if the public will buy the McHealthy approach, because McDonald’s is McDonald’s. It’s quick, simple and easy,’ he says.

Clayton is part of the team that is creating pilot interiors for McDonald’s restaurants in Dunstable and Brighouse and his advice is that it’s vital to achieve congruence between brand perception and the food offer.

‘Rejuvenating the appeal of the McDonald’s brand involves linking food, marketing and interiors,’ he says. ‘In trying to attract back lost customers, it’s primarily about products, but the environments make a big difference.’

S&P Architects director Paul Young, who is working on Pizza Hut’s interiors project, confirms there is ‘a huge sea-change afoot in the fast-food industry’, and he says interiors revamps play a big part. The industry is recognising a need to move upmarket, he says, ‘shifting from identical themed venues to more sophisticated [interiors]’.

‘People wanting a pizza are usually after a Pizza Express experience,’ he explains and consequently Pizza Hut is addressing its ‘red box’ interiors and seating arrangements.

‘We’re introducing crisper, cleaner, more transparent designs, the restaurant equivalent of an Audi showroom,’ he says. ‘Friendlier’ booth seating is replacing disconnected tables and ‘cartoon pizza’ graphics will be fazed out.

Brown agrees environments are important and notes that they need to appeal to as broad a cross-section of people as possible while catering for local demographics.

Soft Moss is redesigning Oxford’s flagship McDonald’s branch, which is scheduled for completion on 1 July. It is focusing on the different types of customer likely to patronise the restaurant – tourists, students and families. Refectory-style seating for students and large circular tables for families, with room for pushchairs, are part of the plans. Stores will vary between locations, but everything will be imbued with a ‘McDonald’s-ness’, Brown says.

Similarly, Soft Moss’ drive thru concepts will cater for drop-in customers. Interiors will feature ‘informal spaces’ to encourage everyone, from ‘lorry drivers to divorced dads with their kids’, to feel comfortable and ‘as if they were sitting round a kitchen table’, he says.

But are interiors revamps enough? Research highlights that ‘healthy’ is an increasingly important consideration to consumers and KFC, which dropped the word ‘fried’ from its name almost a decade ago, surpassed Burger King’s British sales for the first time in 2001 (Source: Mintel).

Brown acknowledges health considerations and highlights that the changing food market is providing more competition. ‘People are much more aware of different food types – fast-food now means sandwiches, sushi and pancakes,’ he says. But he thinks it spells trouble for chains when the food on offer confuses consumers.

‘McDonald’s, like other fast-food restaurants, is starting to diversify too much. It’s selling children’s food, chicken wraps and coffee as well as Big Macs. People will think: “why would I buy a salad from a burger place?” Brands can only stretch so far,’ he says.

And he believes less healthy options can still do well, as long as companies are honest about their products.

‘Pot Noodle, for example, has put up its hands and asked people to enjoy its product, have fun, but not expect it to be healthy. Others could learn from that approach.’

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