Quick service restaurants changing with the times

Don Armstrong gets excited when he talks about the metal sculpture that will soon be erected outside his remodeled Hillsboro restaurant.

“It will have stainless steel salmons, and they’ll be set at different levels on poles so it looks like they are swimming downstream,” Armstrong HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - McDonalds owner Don Armstrong points out where artistic sculptures and attractive landscaping will spruce up the appeal of his renovated restaurant on 185th Avenue.

Armstrong is not talking about a fancy restaurant or even an upscale bistro. He’s talking about the McDonald’s along 185th Avenue that is being rebuilt from the ground up. In addition to the outdoor sculpture by local artist Bob Kimble, it will feature a nearby water wall, free WiFi, a digital menu board and an interior color of earth tones and pastels. The bright yellow golden arches will be replaced by an integrated arched roofline.

“People will still know it’s a McDonald’s,” Armstrong said of the building nearing completion at 2435 N.W. Town Center Drive.

Although Armstrong won’t reveal the total cost for the renovation, he said it will be in the millions of dollars. The investment will be worth it, Armstrong explained, if customer visits increase just a few percent.

The McDonald’s on 185th Avenue isn’t the only restaurant of its kind in the region that has revised its image in recent years. The Burgerville restaurant that opened at 12785 S.W. Pacific Highway in Tigard last year is also a departure from the company’s classic drive-up styling. It features a natural wood interior and ultra-modern touches such as a large interactive TV screen that shows Instagram messages and Twitter photos from folks inside the restaurant.

Burgerville, which is locally owned, is also designing a brand new restaurant at the Portland International Airport. Company officials are spending months trying to figure out how to appeal to on-the-run travelers these days. When it opens later this year, it will be the company’s 40th restaurant in the Pacific Northwest.

On reality TV, the hottest food competitions are between celebrity chefs fighting to see who can prepare the most exotic meal. But, as the changes at the McDonald’s and Burgerville restaurants show, the competition is equally fierce among businesses that most people take for granted — the traditional convenience-oriented restaurants that sell vast quantities of prepared foods to large numbers of people every day.

Neither company thinks of its offerings as “fast food,” however, a phrase with derogatory undertones. Armstrong said he is simply in the restaurant business. Burgerville considers itself a “quick service restaurant,” an industry term with a specific meaning about its operations.

Recent financial reports help explain why the competition is so strong. As reported by the New York Times on June 8, fewer millennials — those between 18 and 30 — are eating out than their parents or older siblings did at their age. If this trend continues, even well-known chains such as McDonald’s are predicted to lose money in coming years. So the race is on to figure out how to appeal to the millennials, in the hope of building future brand loyalty and sales.

According to the article, competitors include a new wave of “fast casual” restaurants, including Chipotle. But an increasing number of millennials are also choosing to eat at home more often to save PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - People line-up to purchase an early lunch during the grand opening of Burgerville in Tigard located along Pacific Highway.

The new features at the remodeled McDonald’s and new Burgerville give insights into their marketing strategies. Instead of moving customers in and out as quickly as possible, one goal is to encourage them to linger — to stay in a more relaxing atmosphere, admire the art, use the free WiFi and check out digital displays of community events. Traditional drive-through lanes are still offered, and even increased from one to two at the remodeled McDonald’s. But speed is not the top priority any longer.

“We’re saying it’s OK to slow down,” said Armstrong, who has reason to believe the changes will pay off. He previously remodeled his restaurants in Aloha and at Cornelius Pass Road and West Union in Hillsboro with the same changes. Business increased noticeably at both locations.

Menus are also being varied to increase the variety of healthy ingredients. That’s long been a strategy at Burgerville, which is owned and operated only in the Pacific Northwest. The company buys as much of its food as possible locally, and stresses seasonal offerings. For example, a recent special included asparagus spears and fresh strawberries, and Walla Walla onions will be added when they are in season.

McDonald’s has also added healthier offerings to its traditional burgers and fries. They include salads, wraps and the lower-calorie “Egg White Delight McMuffin” breakfast sandwich.

The healthier offerings haven’t stopped all criticism, of course. Some organizations, including the Population Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, consider so-called fast food restaurants to be a health risk. But at least McDonald’s and Burgerville can now say they are offering a range of choices to their customers.

Both companies also want to be seen as more involved with their communities. The fish sculpture at the remodeled McDonald’s will be along 185th, where passing motorists can see it. Community events will also be listed inside. The Burgerville in Tigard is already doing that, and the company has sponsored numerous community activities in recent years, including a fundraiser for Work for Art, a campaign that supports the arts in the Northwest, earlier this year.

Increased business is important to the bottom line of both businesses, of course, but it is important to the local economy as well. Forty new jobs were created at the Tigard Burgerville when it opened last July. Anticipating an increase in sales, Armstrong is expanding the work force at the McDonald’s on 185th Avenue from 65 to 90 employees. It is set to open this July.

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