By MATT RICHTEL
The New York Times
April 11, 2006
SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas,
17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry -- but hers has
an unusual geographic reach.
"Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?" Ms.
Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering
breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small
details -- "You Must Ask for Condiments," a sign next to her computer
terminal instructs -- and wished the woman a wonderful day.
What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was
not just outside Ms. Vargas's workplace here on California's central
coast. She was at a McDonald's in Honolulu. And within a two-minute
span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in
Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.
Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this
town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take
orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The
orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled
a few yards from where they were placed.
The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on
each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a
busy day at the drive-through.
While the call-center idea has received some attention since a
scattered sampling of McDonald's franchises began testing it 18 months
ago, most customers are still in the dark. For Meredith Mejia, a
regular at a McDonald's in Pleasant Hill, Calif., near San Francisco,
it meant that her lunch came with a small helping of the surreal. When
told that she had just ordered her double cheeseburger and small fries
from a call center 250 miles away, she said the concept was "bizarre."
And the order-taking is not always seamless. Often customers' voices
are faint, forcing the workers to ask for things to be repeated.
During recent rainstorms in Hawaii, it was particularly hard to hear
orders from there over the din.