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Mr. Big

Welcome to McDonald's, where Steve Bigari is lovin' it.

"Today we are trying for the Mount Everest of hamburgers," says Steve Bigari, aiming a confident smile at a TV camera.

Bigari is standing in the middle of a drive-thru lane scrubbed so clean the asphalt shines in the morning sunlight. High above, a giant yellow M -- the fabled Golden Arches -- rises over the strip malls and car dealerships, the budget hotels and the many, many quick-service eateries that populate this busy strip of Colorado Springs real estate. There's the unmistakable smell of fast food, a mixture of french-fry oil and grilled meat, in the warm October air.

As a well-dressed newscaster feeds him questions off-camera, Bigari elaborates on what he means by "the Mount Everest of hamburgers." The camera captures the 46-year-old Bigari's boyish face, his neatly parted short brown hair graying at the temples, his build that shows time served on high school gridirons and the parade grounds of West Point. In a few minutes, he'll use this McDonald's restaurant -- one of twelve he owns and operates in Colorado Springs -- to try to break the world record for number of customers served per hour at a single-lane drive-thru. The current record, held by a McDonald's franchise owner in Cheyenne, is 327 cars an hour (see story). Bigari thinks he can do better.

At exactly 11:30 a.m., the drive-thru lane where Bigari is now standing will have to handle more cars than it's ever handled before, all of them lured there by an unprecedented deal: a Quarter Pounder with Cheese for just 25 cents. If all goes as planned, each customer will order, pay for and pick up his food in roughly ten seconds. Simple.

As the reporters wrap up, Bigari's employees start final preparations for an event one year in the making. They place orange cones at strategic points on the drive-thru lane, tape signs to speaker boxes that explain the rules: It's a quarter for a Quarter, but no special requests, and only one sandwich per trip through the drive-thru. "Drive around as many times as you like," note the instructions. If signs could wink, these would. A technician tests the sound at one of the speakers, twisting his voice into an auctioneer's whine. "Can I have a dollar, one dollar, one dollar, coming up on two..."

Bigari briefly leaves his post to lean against the outside back wall of the restaurant, where he watches a few customers use the drive-thru. Cars and trucks are lining up nearby, engines rumbling, the advance guard of the world-record attempt. Bigari notices a customer hesitating at a speaker box. "That guy took like three minutes!" he says loudly as the laggard drives away. "If he comes back when we're running the record, I'll drag him out of the car and say, 'What are you doing? You've got to be like a cobra!'" Bigari brings his hand up in crude imitation of a snake. "You've got to be ready to strike!"

Despite his attention to this specific detail, Bigari is really 30,000 feet in the air, as he likes to say, getting a bird's-eye view of the entire operation. He sees the cars in line and the employees poised at their stations, but for him these are small pieces of a much, much bigger picture. Today is about more than a place in the record books. While amassing a $10 million, 400-employee empire based on a dozen McDonald's franchises, Bigari has used his restaurant kitchens, his front counters, his PlayPlaces and his drive-thru windows as a sort of mad scientist's laboratory, creating and tinkering with fast-food inventions never before seen beneath the glow of the Golden Arches. And today's experiment is designed to showcase one of his most ambitious inventions yet.

When the first car pulls into the drive-thru lane at the stroke of 11:30 and the speaker box chirps sweetly, "Hi, this is Michelle, may I take your order?," the voice won't be coming from an employee inside the restaurant a few yards away. It will belong to a specially trained call-center worker in an office building four miles down the road, plugged into a complex array of high-speed Internet technology, cashier software and digital cameras. To modernize his drive-thrus, Bigari has thought way outside the Happy Meal box, taking all those headset-topped order-takers out of the drive-thru windows and placing them in an isolated call center, far from the fryolaters and the grills. The result, he says, is every fast-food owner/operator's dream: faster, more accurate drive-thru orders -- at a reduced price. If Bigari, using his fast-food call center, is able to break the world record, it may lead to a not-so-distant future where we'll all order our Big Macs-to-go from someone located halfway across the country.

But that's still not the big picture. That's maybe 15,000 feet up -- and Bigari's flying at 30,000 right now, looking down at the restaurant, the employees, the customers, the strip malls and the subdivisions encircling it all. He doesn't care how many seconds it takes that Chevy Suburban to get from the speaker box to the drive-thru window. Not really. What he truly cares about are the people handing those burgers out the window, the people reaching out to grab them -- and how he might be able to change their lives.

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