By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
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.
This genius of quick service believes he has one more great innovation waiting in the wings.
Steve Bigari sits in his large office located deep inside the headquarters of Bigari Food Enterprises, hardly able to contain himself. Kim Shugart, a good friend and business partner, stands near the door. They're brainstorming ideas for the world-record attempt, which is still a month away. Both men have unending stores of energy, and when they get together, they fuel each other in a chain reaction. Right now it's starting to feel like Three Mile Island.
"What if we...sell a Quarter for a quarter, then have customers bring a second quarter for charity?" suggests Shugart.
Bigari takes it one step further: Why not just give all the money to charity? The event's going to be losing money anyway, so why not just go all the way? Heck, why stop at going for a one-day world record? Why not do it several days in a row, breaking each previous day's record and setting the bar so high it'll blow everyone else out of the water? And why not let all twelve restaurants go for it? Sure, most aren't equipped to break the record, but let each try for its personal best!
Bigari's mind is moving a mile a minute. He has a habit of repeating anecdotes, mantras and key phrases over and over. For the world-record attempt, he's latched onto "the Mount Everest of hamburgers."
"It's the pinnacle of what we do," he explains. "It's the Mount Everest of hamburgers! Why do people climb Everest? Because it's the pinnacle. This is the Mount Everest of hamburgers, man!"
Bigari's office is lined with testaments to the professional pinnacles he's reached thus far in his career: lifetime-achievement awards from McDonald's Corporation and architectural renderings of many of his successful restaurants. The room is a celebration of everything that's the biggest, the best, the fastest. Among all these trophies, a small framed prayer, "Slow Me Down, Lord," stands out:
Slow me down, Lord! Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.
Give me, amidst the confusion of my day, the calmness of the everlasting hills...
But slowing down doesn't come easy. Bigari grew up encouraged to do just the opposite.
Bigari was shaped by four powerful role models, men who showed him how to win. The first was his father, Gene Bigari, who taught him that life is a marathon and you can't ever stop running. When the mines closed in their home town of Iron River, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Gene moved his entire Italian Catholic family to Milwaukee to start a new life. Then there was Bigari's high-school football coach, Bill Quinn, who told him that while you can be as intense a competitor as you want, you've got to play fair, and that "anything you've got to say, say it between the whistles." And there was Bigari's instructor at West Point, John Dodson, a Special Forces major with an MBA from Harvard who showed him that a good entrepreneur can flourish anywhere. Between prolonged deployments to war-torn parts of the world, Dodson bought up property near West Point and built his own power plant.
Bigari found his final mentor in the late 1980s, when he was living in Colorado Springs and thinking about leaving the Army. Brent Cameron, a local businessman who'd once been president of the International Division of McDonald's Corporation, opening new stores all over the world, now owned about a dozen McDonald's outlets around the Springs. He took Bigari to lunch and asked him to come work for him.
Bigari started his apprenticeship scrubbing urinals, but he moved up the ladder fast. He attended Hamburger University, McDonald's management-training center in Oak Brook, Illinois, and was soon Cameron's right-hand man. When local Taco Bell franchises were threatening to put them out of business, Bigari and Cameron decided to sell certain menu items for 59 cents each. "You're going to go broke doing this," a corporate McDonald's rep warned Cameron. "I'm going broke anyway," he replied.
The gimmick was wildly successful, and is reflected today in the "Dollar Menu" concept at McDonald's stores across the country.
Five years after Bigari went to work for him, Cameron died in a mountain-climbing accident. Left on his own, Bigari purchased a single McDonald's outlet. As he nourished the beginnings of what would become a considerable fast-food empire, he started displaying a character trait that hadn't come from any of his mentors. "I was always tinkering with stuff," Bigari says with a laugh. "I look at something and say, why is it like that?"
When he was a kid, he'd imagined building a fusion reactor out of a coffee can and winning the Indy 500. Although that didn't happen, he never lost his interest in making something faster, better, more powerful. And now, with a McDonald's as his construction set and burgers, fries and milkshakes as his tools, he set out to do it.
Regulars at any Bigari McDonald's became accustomed to finding new gadgets. Bigari designed a way for his customers to use credit cards before such technology was available in other fast-food restaurants. He built machines that could cook doughnuts at the front counter while customers looked on. With the help of his daughter, he designed basketball-themed playgrounds that are now in McDonald's PlayPlaces nationwide. And corporate headquarters chose Bigari's restaurants to test a made-to-order food-preparation system called "Made for You" that's now at McDonald's stores around the world.
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."
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 Dreamscorollary: "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."
Exit41 started by developing high-end cashier software for the front counters, but it wasn't until Tengler met with Bigari a little over three years ago that the company discovered its full potential. They realized that what Bigari needed to improve the quality, accuracy and speed of his drive-thru business was a call center.
Today, none of the drive-thru orders at a Bigari McDonald's are taken by workers inside that store. The responsibility has been shifted to a fleet of employees located in the call center at Bigari Food Enterprises headquarters. Inside one big room are twelve cubicles, each containing a telephone, headset and computer. When a car pulls up to a speaker box, a magnetic detector buried in the drive-thru lane goes off, prompting an employee in one of the call-center cubicles to say into her headset, "Welcome to McDonald's, what can I get for you?" -- which is instantaneously piped out of the speaker box. As the customer relays his order, the employee enters it into her computer. Before she has a chance to say the cost of the meal, the order is displayed on a color-coded screen in the restaurant's kitchen just a few yards from the drive-thru customer, and the order is assembled and ready to go by the time the customer arrives at the drive-thru window. To avoid sequencing problems and ensure that the right meal goes to the right car, another computer screen inside the store shows a breakdown of the order along with a digital snapshot of the customer and his car. As the customer pays and drives away with his meal, the snapshot is erased.
The benefits of the drive-thru call center have been incalculable, Bigari says. Fast-food speed has always been dependent on a division of labor: One person grills the meat, another assembles the burger, another hands it to the customer. With the help of Exit41, Bigari took the principle one step further, isolating the pivotal task of order-taking from the restaurant's hustle and bustle. The result has been drastically increased drive-thru speeds, typically well under ninety seconds per order compared to a McDonald's national average of about two and a half minutes. Less time equals more sales; capacity begets volume. The specially trained, single-focus call-center employees are also more accurate. Bigari reports that mistakes have been cut in half, down to 1 percent of all orders.
The 35 or so call-center employees -- who keep the center staffed 24 hours a day and are paid an average of 25 to 50 cents more an hour than those preparing the food -- are taught the subtle arts of up-sell and suggestive sell. "Would you like a large soda with that?" they'll offer, or "Would you like a dessert today?" And Bigari has installed phones all over his restaurants that also lead to the call center. A customer can sit in one of his PlayPlaces, pick up a phone, place his order, swipe his credit card, and within minutes, his meal arrives on a shiny plastic tray. All told, Bigari says, the call center has saved his restaurants hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The call-center concept was bound to spread beyond Colorado Springs. A couple of years ago, Glen Cook, a McDonald's franchisee based in Brainerd, Minnesota, took a look at Bigari's operation. A few months later, Bigari was in Brainerd, listening to the voices of his Colorado Springs call-center employees coming out of Cook's speaker boxes. Soon the call center was also handling drive-thru traffic at stores in Missouri and Massachusetts.
"This country has put in a telecommunications infrastructure that we can take advantage of," says Tengler. "The connections across the country are such that someone in Brainerd, Minnesota, can benefit from this just as much as someone from Boston or Colorado Springs. You can imagine the impact this is going to have on the coasts, where labor is more expensive."
Some bloggers are imagining just that, and they don't like what they see. Under banners decrying "Outsizing at McDonald's!" they're making online predictions that drive-thru call centers will lead to layoffs at fast-food restaurants as a portion of the workload is shipped to parts of the country -- or the world -- where labor costs are the big-business equivalent of an extra-value meal.
Such doomsayers miss the point, according to Bigari. "More dollars means more jobs," he says. "I'm doing so many more transactions, I need that many more people."
He estimates the call center has resulted in about sixty new jobs in his company, including four to five more employees at each restaurant to handle the higher customer volume. In Brainerd, Cook reports similar staff supersizing.
And more jobs could be on the way. Bigari and fellow fast-food visionaries keep cooking up new ways to improve the drive-thru ballet. How about paying for your orders on the go via a speedpass like those used in highway toll booths? How about pre-selected orders on your BlackBerry that can be sent to the restaurant? How about calling the call center on your cell phone before you even get to the store?
"When we figure out cell-phone orders? Ho, ho, ho! You could order across the street!" says Bigari. Still standing outside his restaurant, he convulses with laughter over the possibilities. In the drive-thru lane nearby, drivers turn to watch, momentarily distracted from their flow toward the window.
And burger-and-fries competition is fierce in Colorado Springs. Eric Schlosser chose this town as the focal point of his best-selling polemic on the quick-service industry, Fast Food Nation. Explosive low-density sprawl here led to a local epidemic of chain restaurants, he wrote, making Colorado Springs a bellwether for the industry.
Bigari has not only survived, but flourished in this tough market. (His dozen restaurants account for more than 25 percent of all McDonald's stores within a fifty-mile radius of Colorado Springs, according to www.McDonalds.com.) He's done so by doing what he does best: innovate.
Take the example of Chick-fil-A, Bigari says as he navigates through traffic on North Powers Boulevard. A local Chick-fil-A franchise owner is planning on building a new, "free-stander" restaurant next to Bigari's "big battleship" on Highway 83 and North Academy Boulevard. It's a direct attack -- one that he's not taking lying down.
"They're a wonderful company," says Bigari as he stops at a red light. "But it's my job to put them out of business."
He plans to hit Chick-fil-A where it hurts. Unlike most fast-food companies, Chick-fil-A also does catering. So while this Chick-fil-A franchise owner is busy building a new restaurant, Bigari's going to start his own rival catering business. He's already in discussion with chef Mike Longo, formerly of the Broadmoor Hotel.
A catering company run by a McDonald's franchisee? You can imagine Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's Corporation, rolling over in his grave. Maybe that's why Bigari is hush-hush about the specifics: The head honchos at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, aren't yet aware of his catering plan.
Eighty percent of McDonald's restaurants worldwide are owned and operated by franchise owners. At its core, McDonald's Corporation is a giant landlord: Franchisees are responsible for furnishing and managing their restaurants, while McDonald's owns the land beneath them. For Bigari, the Golden Arches empire is both his benefactor and his watchdog, his springboard and his leash. He enjoys the flexibility of owning a local business while also leveraging the infrastructure, resources and brand name of a global corporation.
Back in 1948, Richard and Maurice "Mac" McDonald were innovators just like Bigari who came up with the strange idea of eliminating their carhops and glassware and turning their burger kitchens into assembly lines. Then came the biggest entrepreneur of them all, Ray Kroc, who had the outrageous idea of taking the McDonald's concept nationwide. And where did such McDonald's staples as the Big Mac, the Filet-O-Fish, the Egg McMuffin and even Ronald McDonald come from? Franchise owners.
But if McDonald's was founded by iconoclasts, it didn't get where it is today by letting every franchisee go hog wild. The key to McDonald's success is that the food is the same everywhere. A Quarter Pounder is a Quarter Pounder is a Quarter Pounder, whether you're in Anchorage or Miami or Maine. And to ensure this, a franchise must follow thousands of rules and procedures. The operation manual is hundreds of pages thick, detailing everything from the thickness of fries to the size of each pickle slice. Needless to say, that doesn't leave much room for creativity -- which is exactly the way Kroc wanted it.
"We cannot trust some people who are non-conformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry," Kroc once said. "The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."
The very individualistic Bigari acknowledges that not everyone in Oak Brook has been keen on his inventions. And he wishes the company had moved faster after he came up with the drive-thru call-center idea in 2002. "Three years in a corporate life cycle is pretty fast. It seems like an eternity to me," he confesses. "My only disappointment is that if we as an organization had moved ahead faster, we may have precluded other brands from getting this."
Other fast-food chains will be unveiling their own versions of drive-thru call centers very soon. Exit41's Tengler chooses his words carefully. "It's the balance of innovation and scale that all big companies wrestle with," he says. "This was a very controversial technology, from a provider not approved by McDonald's. If I'm running an enterprise with 13,000 stores, the best way to make sure everybody is on the same road is to make sure nobody diverts themselves."
After struggling with stagnating revenues, McDonald's Corp. has made a much-publicized turnaround over the past few years. The public face of this upswing is the "I'm Lovin' It" campaign and healthier menu choices. But the real transformation, says Bigari, has come from deep within the corporation. "In my eighteen years' experience with the brand, it was the first time we [owner/operators] were able to participate in the day-to-day decision-making," he points out. "And that changed everything."
Earlier this year, McDonald's Corporation announced that it was running its own drive-thru call-center test. By the end of next year, the Exit41 software in Bigari's restaurants will be replaced by a version developed by McDonald's Corp. If the concept goes nationwide, Oak Brook could buy out Bigari's call center.
That would be okay with him. He'll continue to dream up new ways to make fast-food faster, but in the meantime, he's got bigger potatoes to fry.
If you could walk around inside Steve Bigari's head, your trip might look like Mr. Biggs' Family Fun Center.
A warehouse-sized building just off I-25 in Colorado Springs, Mr. Biggs' is 152,000 square feet of bright colors, booming rock and roll, high-speed electronics and stuff that's big, big, big. There's the laser-gun attack on a downed alien starship, a post-apocalyptic go-kart track, an acid-dipped croquet game, a foam cannonball-spewing pirate ship, a hair boutique, a theater space, a bowling alley, a Funky Junky Chow House restaurant, a Chez Biggs gourmet eatery and a host of other sense-jiggling activities in "the biggest little town around."
Bigari didn't plan on building the largest family center in Colorado Springs. (And he swears he wasn't the inspiration for its mascot, Mr. Biggs, who looks like Mr. Clean after too much time in Jamaica.) He actually just wanted to move his corporate offices when he bought a property that was too large for his operations. So Bigari thought big. Very big. Since he opened Mr. Biggs' on the site last March, he's drawn tens of thousands of visitors and started talk of turning it into a chain.
"Mr. Biggs' is an afterthought," he says, pushing open a door that leads out of the candy-colored clamor of the fun center and into a maze of offices that are the Bigari Food Enterprises headquarters. "It's all just hiding my fascination in life, which is the working poor."
For years, Bigari has struggled with the idea of helping the working poor, people like his father, people like those who staff his front counters and call center. "There are 39 million working poor in this country," he says. "It's a systemic economic failure. I want to help overcome that."
Critics of the fast-food industry, including Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, point out that the sector pays some of the lowest wages and offers the worst benefit packages. "Eric got it wrong; it's that simple," responds Bigari. "McDonald's is a powerful tool. Great brands like McDonald's can be used for tremendous good, or they can be manipulated for tremendous wrong. All he sees is what's been done wrong, and he's failed to see the power of being able to act responsibly."
While Bigari wanted to use his company to help people, he realized that "you can't charge enough for a Big Mac to do it." He considered raising pay to $12 an hour, but all of his restaurants would have promptly gone into the red. So instead, he handed out hundreds of dollars to employees, helped them buy cars, gave them better hours. But like his drive-thrus, he just couldn't serve everyone fast enough.
So Bigari took a big-picture view of the problem and came back with a plan. He recognized that assistance services, such as children's health-insurance programs, tax credits and housing vouchers, already existed to help the working poor -- but most people didn't know how to access them. The distribution point for this aid, Bigari realized, had to be those who know the working poor best: their employers.
This realization formed the basis of America's Family Inc., a non-profit organization that Bigari founded in 2002 which has no connection to McDonald's. ("Otherwise, it becomes somebody's pet project," Bigari points out.) By partnering with service-industry companies, America's Family offers a no-cost, one-stop clearinghouse of information on private, public and non-profit social services (the website is www.amfol.com).
Bigari started out by helping give his restaurant employees access to services that provide low-cost health care, pharmacy discounts, bank cards, subsidized housing, tuition reimbursement and sliding-scale child care, building a do-it-yourself component into the system. You can get low-interest loans, but first you have to take a personal-finance class that will teach you how to budget for rent. Yes, you can buy super-cheap computers, but first you need to learn how to use e-mail. Over the past three years, America's Family has expanded to serve more than 25,000 low-wage workers in Colorado Springs, including 18,000 at Fort Carson, and has earned Bigari a fellowship from Ashoka, a nonprofit that invests in social entrepreneurs around the world.
America's Family is now ready to expand to Denver, and then maybe across the country. This is where Bigari's call center enters the plan. Instead of opening an office in each metro area, he plans to connect the working poor to services using the same telecommunications technology that connects his drive-thru customers to their burgers. Someday soon, there may be specially designed kiosks in workplaces where employees can call up an America's Family representative, who will help them find the nearest community health center. That representative, sitting in a Colorado Springs call center, may well be the same person currently asking, "Want fries with that?"
"My vision of my call center has nothing to do with taking orders for McDonald's," says Bigari. His call-center employees "have graduated from the university of life. I want them to use their skills, and I want to pay them more. I don't want them working at McDonald's the rest of their lives."
It's a bold idea, and it may be working. John Milliman, a business professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, analyzed how America's Family had impacted workers at Bigari's restaurants. During the first two years of the organization's operation, he found that turnover had dropped 93 percent. Employees reported a high satisfaction with most America's Family components, and a majority said they'd need to be offered at least a dollar more an hour to leave their jobs with Bigari. Milliman is impressed with the success of America's Family, but worries that the head of the family may be too busy. "Somebody's got to spend a huge amount of time to make this scalable," he says. "Steve is obviously a very gifted leader. He's doing so many things, and you can't blame him, but it's hard for him to devote all of his time to America's Family."
Bigari doesn't deny that. "Often I'm running so fast I'm not listening to God," he admits. That's why he keeps the "Slow Me Down, Lord" prayer on his office wall:
Remind me each day of the fable of the hare and the tortoise that I may know that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than increasing its speed.
On Wednesday, October 17, within minutes of the start of the world-record attempt, a three-car-wide river of Nissans, Hondas, Rams and Plymouths circles Bigari's restaurant. Over and over, the same conversation plays out on the speaker boxes: "How may I help you?" "Quarter Pounder, please." "Will that be all?" "Yes." "That'll be 25 cents at the window." McDonald's bags and Quarter Pounder boxes accumulate in automobile seats as kids wearing trucker hats grab their fifth Quarter Pounder and scream, "We're going for another round! Yeah!" Drivers call their friends and neighbors, telling them to get down to the restaurant.
A female newscaster in a pink sports coat angles a microphone at an open driver's-side window. "Mind if I ask you..." But she's too late. The car is already past her, part of a great, thousand-wheeled machine. No time to talk. Must buy Quarter Pounders.
And at the most critical juncture, where returning customers merge with new customers, there's Bigari, arms waving like a concert director. "Over here! Go! Move! Squeeze them in! Let's go!" Then, "No! Stop! Do NOT go!" as a woman and her young children walk out of the restaurant and into the flow of cars. When he has a moment to spare, he surveys the operation. "This is the ballet, man!"
But it's not dancing fast enough. At 12:30 p.m., Bigari receives sobering news. They moved 306 cars in the first hour, 22 short of a new record. And now Bigari may be running out of customers. The problem doesn't seem to be pace, but volume. Once snaking all the way around the restaurant, the line of cars is now just six vehicles long. "We didn't expect this," says Bigari. He spies a customer leaving the parking lot. "Come on, you can say you are a part of it!" he yells. "Come back! Go around one more time!"
Bigari breaks from his drive-thru choreography and hurries into the restaurant. Moments later he runs out, grasping a receipt and wearing a wide grin. They did 349 cars between 11:45 and 12:45! "349, baby!" he shouts, licking his finger and making a notch in the air.
He runs back into the kitchen, slapping hands and knocking knuckles, yelling, "Spankin'!" As the crew whoops in excitement, he grabs a crispy chicken sandwich and slides into a booth with business partner Shugart and Joe Johnson, president of Bigari Food Enterprises. They'll run another world-record attempt the next day, and the day after that, to try to raise the bar. Jack Preiss, the old record-holder in Cheyenne, is surely going to try to beat 349. The three discuss ways to improve the operation. Handing out fliers to customers in line, explaining the rules of the quarter-for-a-Quarter deal? Shugart jokes that they should get rid of the people whose faces are attached to their cell phones. Then the ideas start getting bigger. If Preiss breaks the record, Bigari will just have to beat it again. Maybe they can turn it into a friendly rivalry, getting the mayors of Colorado Springs and Cheyenne involved. Heck, maybe...
Bigari smiles and takes a bite of his sandwich, 30,000 feet high.