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TANGENT Big Mac, fries, and a ring tone, please

Restaurant chain tests new high-tech menu

By Delroy Alexander

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Burning CD's, downloading mobile phone ring tones, even printing digital quality photos could soon be the newest things on the McDonald's menu.

In a bid to draw the young and tech-savvy into its restaurants, McDonald's Corp. has begun pilot testing a new ATM-style device called the Blaze Net, that allows customers to buy music, ring tones, print photos and surf the Web at the restaurant.

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Open since last Monday, the new flagship restaurant near Oakbrook Center Mall in Illinois combines several high-tech gadgets yet to be seen in more conventional McDonald's eateries. The gadgets appear alongside food offerings including lattes in the McCafe section of the store that is more reminiscent of a Starbucks than a burger joint.

"It is clearly unique and not a traditional restaurant," said Bill Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman. "But it is a peek at the future of McDonald's through the use of technology, innovative design and contemporary space."

What is compelling, according to Whitman, is the fact that the new restaurant "gives our customers the ability to do things at McDonald's they can't do at other places. Quite honestly, with some of the media centers you don't even need a credit or debit card -- you can pay with cash and download your favorite songs on to your own CD."

While it is too early for Whitman to say what will happen with the ATM-Style "Blaze Net" media centers, he said, "so far the customer feed back has been overwhelmingly positive."

The pilot test employs four remote computer screens at sit-down stations linked to two Blaze Net media production centers that spit out CDs and pictures. The test is expected to be expanded once the initial 60 to 90 day test period is completed, according to Jonathon First, chief marketing officer for Digital Transaction Machines, the New York-based company that supplies the equipment.

"The first step in the U.S. is Oakbrook," First said. "Then we are going to start, I believe the Southeast -- probably West Virginia and Florida are the next two testing steps."

The 60- to 90-day pilot test of the technology follows the initial introduction of similar equipment in Munich last November. That is now being rolled out into many of the company's 1,250 German restaurants, First said.

"We provide digital merchandise, whether it's music on CDs that can be delivered in under two minutes, photos in six seconds a piece produced professionally, or ring tones that are instant. We also have the capability for ticketing -- whether it's live events or movies -- and eventually we are going to have DVDs and videos as well."

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Ideal for laptop, iPod and PDA users and even customers with little or no Web experience, the new Oakbrook flagship promises to be a live testing ground not only for technological ideas, but also new menu items, according to Whitman.

Already on sale is such fare as honey wheat chicken sandwiches with ranch dressing and a host of cafe favorites not typically found at a McDonald's.

The huge new 10,500-square-foot-restaurant is more than twice the size of a traditional 4,000-square-foot store and comes with outdoor seating for 60 and a flashy new two-lane drive through with advertising boards that change as you drive along.

The restaurant, with Wi-Fi Internet access, multiple flat-screen TVs and video monitors upstairs and down, is dedicated to Charlie Bell, the former McDonald's chief executive who died in January of cancer just eight months after becoming the youngest ever to get the job.

Missing from the restaurant is the classic red mansard roof that typically tops most restaurants. Also missing is the large, gold letter M.

Instead, McDonald's has built a natural stone and terra-cotta-colored brick building with a neatly curving yellow roof over the two-story block on the edge of the upscale Oakbrook Center shopping mall.

Insiders say the new restaurant cost upwards of $10 million to build -- almost as much to rebuild the flagship Rock N' Roll McDonald's in downtown Chicago. That may be because the Oakbrook project features many more technology-driven ideas as well as a McCafe coffee drinking and lounging concept pioneered by Bell in 1993 when he was head of McDonald's Australian arm.

It also draws heavily on the type of young hip look and feel that Bell pushed the chain to adopt several years ago in an attempt to produce more innovative marketing that targeted a younger audience.

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Such moves led to the "I'm Lovin' It" advertising campaign and a renaissance at the world's largest restaurant chain, which saw global sales in April jump 2.8 percent -- 4.7 percent in the United States -- the 24th straight monthly increase. Revenues jumped 11 percent to $19 billion in 2004 at its 30,000-plus restaurants.

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