Mr. Big

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

Not all of Bigari's innovations have been successful. A robotic french-fry machine proved too maintenance-heavy to be practical. The combination playground apparatus/washing machine that made a game out of cleaning the plastic balls from PlayPlace ball pits worked fine, but then McDonald's got rid of the pits. As for the in-restaurant climbing walls, "That was just stupid," says Bigari.

Bigari downplays his inventive genius. "I routinely find good ideas and steal them," he explains. But technological innovation is coded into his genetic makeup. He's rigged his home alarm system as a house-sized day planner: One beep means it's time for him to take out the trash, another buzz signifies that he needs to put chemicals in the hot tub. Bigari might forget these mundane chores otherwise; his mind moves at breakneck speed from one task to the next.

"He does jump from subject to subject. Sometimes you have to bring him back to task, but it's part of who he is," says Brenda, Bigari's second wife and the mother of three of his five children. "Trying to get to know Steve is like trying to understand a bunch of paint thrown on the wall. You see all these different colors and creations, but you have to look at the big picture, and then you get it."

Would you like fries with that? Steve Bigari is at your 
Anthony Camera
Would you like fries with that? Steve Bigari is at your service.

To explain himself, Bigari offers his life verse, Isaiah 40: 30-31: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run, but not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint." For Bigari, the meaning is twofold. First, trust in the Lord. Second, don't run from challenges; face them head-on and you'll gain a new perspective, like eagles flying into a storm and rising on the thermal updrafts to 30,000 feet. He gets the big picture from this all-encompassing viewpoint, taking the roofs off his stores, seeing how everything's working -- or not working -- inside.

"This is the ballet," says Bigari. "The three-lane drive-thru is the ballet of fast food. It requires training, practice and accuracy."

In mid-September, Bigari catches the show outside his McDonald's at Highway 83 and North Academy Boulevard, where he hopes to break the world record for speedy service on October 17. This is one of the three busiest McDonald's stores in the state, he says, and right now he's watching the highest volume of the day, the lunch traffic, go through the drive-thru. A seemingly endless stream of automobiles flows past three side-by-side speaker boxes, merging into one lane as they roll toward the drive-thru window. To Bigari, each rumbling 4x4, each humming sedan, is a ballerina. And he's the choreographer, watching for any missteps, any stumbles, constantly composing new ways to make this dance of metal and meat more graceful.

"10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15..." he counts off the seconds as a customer in a green Ford truck lingers at the drive-thru window, waiting for his meal. Maybe they ran out of plasticware in the kitchen and had to get more from storage. Maybe the order got lost in the shuffle. Whatever, the seconds are adding up -- seconds Bigari can't afford to waste. When the truck finally pulls away, he sighs. "Eight or nine extra seconds. It's like pouring gasoline on the fire."

More than 65 percent of Bigari's sales fly out the window in the form of drive-thru orders. When it comes to maximizing these sales, his mantra of choice is "Capacity begets volume." Or there's the Bigari Field of Dreams corollary: "If you build it, they might come, but if you don't, they definitely won't."

Bigari recognizes that the key to drive-thru is through-put, increasing the speed and volume of flow (see story). His drive-thrus are the last step of a massive assembly line that starts in the feedlots and potato fields and ends with a Quarter Pounder and fries coming through a car window. The more time he can shave off at the drive-thru, the more cars he can put through per hour -- and more cars equal more sales. But while the drive-thru may seem like the ultimate quick-service model, it's not conducive to maximizing speed. "The problem is that it is a linear-service model," Bigari says, "and that is a flawed model."

At a typical, single-lane drive-thru, if a customer feels like taking three minutes at the speaker box while he decides whether to get the six- or ten-piece Chicken McNuggets, every car behind him has to wait. Bigari installed side-by-side speaker boxes so that drivers could circumvent slower customers, but that created another wrinkle: sequencing. When a kitchen has two or three orders coming in at the same time from side-by-side speakers, how do you know which car is going to get to the drive-thru window first? Complicating that were myriad other drive-thru headaches -- from overstressed, multi-tasking order-takers to simple mistakes in the orders.

While Bigari was pondering how to work his way out of the box, a little software company half a continent away was quietly developing a solution. Exit41 Inc., a Massachusetts startup, had decided that the fast-food industry was long overdue for a technological overhaul. "Here was this huge industry that had been underserved by technology," says Craig Tengler, co-founder of Exit41. "The restaurant industry was still replacing glorified electronic calculators."

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