Less clown, more coffee

You are relaxing in a soft leather-upholstered café chair, sipping your mocha whatever, and staring at flames leaping in a stylish fireplace built into a finely detailed wooden wall. To your left is a college student transfixed by her laptop; to your right is a businessman doing the same as you, except instead of a trendy coffee beverage he’s tucking into…a Big Mac? That’s when you remember that you’re sitting in a McDonald’s. And that experience tells the global fast-food giant that its metamorphosis is successful.

Whether we realized it or not, over the years we all got used to the look and feel of a McDonald’s restaurant: a kid-centred atmosphere dominated by a bright colour palette suggestive of the red-and-yellow arches, and anchored by durable and easily cleaned but definitely uncomfortable fiberglass tables and steel chairs. And of course that ubiquitous clown named Ronald. But McD’s has been working hard to shed those old expectations. Walk into one now and there’s a good chance it has been touched by a massive $1-billion nationwide reimaging initiative marked by the biggest store-by-store makeover in McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Limited’s history. 

As of mid-2014, the reimaging program is about 77 per cent complete across the company’s network of 1,400 restaurants (even more among the freestanding traditional restaurants, approximately 86 per cent), and includes more than just rebranding: it tackles everything from back-of-house kitchen operations to menu offerings. “Over our 44-year history, fragmentation began to creep in among the individual restaurants, so this program is attempting to put every restaurant on the same platform,” says Neel Rughani, director of Construction for McDonald’s Canada. Despite a vast array of building types and ages, “this is an attempt to get some kind of brand consistency across the whole Canadian network,” he says.

Achieving a national brand consistency across 1,400 stores that also incorporates some level of regionalism isn’t easy, and the genesis of the solution ended up coming, surprisingly, from a conference where other national networks had assembled to share best-practices – something McDonald’s is very good at. It was at this conference, says Rughani, they were introduced to what McDonald’s Australia has been doing with its reimaging. Down Under adopted several strong new designs, such as an exterior “blade & ribbon” motif, as well as two interior packages: Allegro, with a soft, suburban look, and Form, which attempted to capture the more energetic urban feel of a large city. Form was originally created by Sydney-based Juicy Design, and was such a hit the firm was asked to take the design palette and introduce it to other markets around the world. 

Hence the conference. “The Big Mac wasn’t invented in a laboratory, it was invented by an operator. It’s similar with design,” says Rughani. “If there is something interesting going on in the world of design, it gets discussed at the global level and then brought back to the local level.” Naturally the first step at that local level is McDonald’s Canada’s in-house design staff, which number, perhaps surprisingly, only three (Rughani included). So while they set the tone, external firms are brought in to help work on the projects. Outside of a few unique situations, the national design map is currently divided among three groups: Ron Vornbrock with Reprise Design handles everything west of Ontario; Turner Fleischer Architects does Ontario; and Montreal-based Manon Renaud deals with everything east. “Because they are not competing for restaurants, they have become regional experts,” says Rughani.

After modifying Form and Allegro for the Canadian market, the teams also came up with a third interiors package: Main Street, which is intended to serve smaller, more rural towns. In all three packages, the design teams “localized” much of it, including material choices, colour palettes, furniture, fixtures and other elements in order to address each of the markets. Form was unleashed onto the Canadian landscape in 2010 when a new stand-alone restaurant was built in Toronto as a “demonstrator” to get feedback from vendors and franchisees, and since then has been tweaked and modified as McDonald’s inches closer to understanding the new direction it wants to take. 

The apotheosis of this transformation can now be seen in a newly opened flagship restaurant that represents McDonald’s’ new vision of itself. Clothed in the Form Moments package, it represents the newest version of Form in Canada (think Form 2.0), and is also now the largest restaurant in Ontario. Located near the corner of Yonge and Elm streets in downtown Toronto, it radiates a strong urban design language, which isn’t surprising given its proximity to Ryerson University’s soon-to-be game-changing Student Learning Centre by Snøhetta; as well as Dundas Square, a landmark McDonald’s has been trying to put a street-level location next to for a while.

Remarkably spacious considering its downtown location, the nearly 9,000-square-foot restaurant spans two levels and seats 259 guests. Within this expansive space a zoning concept has been implemented: a “fast” zone utilizes high tables bookended by flat-screen TVs, and caters to single business people in need of a quick meal; the “communal” zone handles larger groups and families; while the “linger” zone encourages exactly that, with café chairs, fireplaces and warmer tones. Punctuating throughout this are dark, tasteful booths and counter seating contrasted by clusters of red and yellow plush seating. Zoning continues in the order area, and creating a completely independent McCafé coffee bar sends a clear signal that embracing the coffee culture customer has become a vital pillar in their business plans.

While it would be inaccurate to suggest that McDonald’s is completely divorcing itself from a style and flavour that has characterized its restaurants for the past few decades, it is clear to see that when the world’s largest fast-food chain replaces mascots and ball pits with fireplaces, flat-screen televisions and free WiFi, they see a different future on the horizon. Maybe that famous clown is feeling a certain mermaid nipping at his heels.  cI