McDonald's (MCD) is taking a page from its more upscale rivals in trying to adapt to a changing competitive landscape.
The world's largest restaurant chain is unveiling what it sees as its future, and it looks a lot like Panera (PNRA). One location in Missouri opened its doors on Thursday, offering self-serve kiosks for ordering meals and table service, as well as unlimited french fries. Another refashioned McDonald's opened recently in New York City, with trendy decor and similar self-serve kiosks, as well as table service.
The move to emulate so-called "fast-casual" restaurants like Panera and Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) comes as diners increasingly demand quality ingredients and an experience that's a step-up from fast-food counter service.
McDonald's is also seeking to win back customers through all-day breakfast and by eliminating some unhealthy ingredients, such as removing high-fructose corn syrup from its hamburger buns.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, the new McDonald's was packed with curious customers, according to the Kansas City Star. That was likely due not only to interest in the fast-food restaurant's new look, but also the offer of unlimited french fries.
"Unlimited fries are just the beginning of what's different about [this restaurant]," Chris Habiger, the owner of the Missouri-based restaurant told the St. Joseph News-Press. "We're making a shift from fast food to fast-casual."
Fast-casual restaurants target the sweet spot between fast-food restaurants and more traditional sit-down eateries. Instead of ordering with a waiter, customers place their orders at a counter, but then take a table locator and sit down at a table or booth. A server then delivers the food. Prices are generally higher than fast-food restaurants, but lower than for traditional eateries.
It's no accident that the "McDonald's of the future" is aping the fast-casual concept: The segment has been one of the bright spots in the restaurant industry. Sales at fast-casual restaurants jumped 10.4 percent last year, making it the quickest-growing restaurant category, according to Euromonitor International.
So what about those endless fries? They come with specialty orders, such as customized hamburgers, and will only be available for the first few months, the News-Press said.
McDonald's view of the future also includes more options than the standard Big Mac, with Business Insider noting that the New York City version asks customers if they want a premium bun, ciabatta roll or a wrap, as well as sauces like Sriracha mayo and creamy garlic sauce.
If that sounds appealing, it comes with a price tag that might put off some die-hard McDonald's fans. The customized burger ordered by Business Insider was priced at about $10, or more than twice the cost of a Big Mac.
The big question is whether McDonald's customers will continue lovin' it, or if they'll balk at paying more for a gussied-up Big Mac.