While many of today's high-end single restaurant designs careen toward green practices and "experiential dining," re-imagining even a portion of McDonald's 15,000 iconic U.S. double-sloped mansard-roofed, vinyl-boothed, golden-arched proverbial burger joints of yore may require a little more thought and planning.
With 700 McDonald's restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C. market alone (referred to by McDonald’s Corporation as the Baltimore-Washington region, and encompassing parts of Virginia as well), a much-anticipated makeover has been underway since about 2004-06 in its earliest planning and test stages.
Retaining its traditional fan base while aligning itself with a brand savvy 21st century demographic, design components such as energy-efficient LED and CFL lighting, WIFI, plasma screen TVs, “zoned” interior spaces designated for speed, extended socializing or family seating flexibility, and dual-lane drive-thrus serve up a more modern approach to fast food. Factor in aesthetic elements that may include cultured stone, rich but muted colors, indirect wall lighting, arm chairs, double-sided fireplaces and art deco panels, and the burger behemoth’s take on new times begins to warrant a story in an epicurean Architectural Digest if there were one.
“What we’re trying to do now is have a much more holistic approach with our environment,” said David Neiss, development director for McDonald's Baltimore - Washington region. Citing brand maturation and relevancy to today’s consumer as the impetus for new direction, Neiss identified only one iconic change to its building design–the double slope mansard–in the 1970s, since the brand’s franchise inception in 1955. “In the early days, we had what we called a red-and-white building with sky-ing arches,” he recalled. “We didn’t even have seating. We didn’t have drive-thrus. We didn’t have restrooms.”
Where carbon footprint and overall sustainability are concerned, Neiss said McDonald’s is “…probably farther ahead than most, and we really haven’t told our story as well as we should or could.” To that end, and in tandem with the trend toward LEED certification, McDonald’s global headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. was certified LEED platinum in 2009. As of October, 2010, four restaurants in the Midwest, South and West had achieved LEED gold with burgeoning numbers engaging in green practices like low flow plumbing fixtures, recycled denim insulation and even partial solar power.
With 87 redesigned or rebuilt restaurants in the Baltimore Washington area since 2006, and two out of 16 D.C. free-standing structures to date–Georgia Ave. and Peabody, and Benning Rd.–having undergone conversions, brand consistency and message are imperative though there is some wiggle room. "There are local architects that we have trained by our corporate architects to understand our design principles and iconic image,” Neiss said, adding that localizing certain aspects of design in accordance with municipal requirements, and even implementing individual owner/operator key preferences, are not entirely uncommon.
Speaking to what he called the corporation’s “Forever Young” contemporary design concept, which is tantamount to changing and evolving with new trends, owner/operator Craig Welburn said his customers have provided “all types of positive comments” about the change in décor, including the opportunity to work on laptops and monitor news, sports and other events on plasma TVs. Owner of 25 McDonald’s restaurants in the Baltimore - Washington region (four is the average number), and with unconfirmed (“no comment”) reports reflecting owner/operators incurring anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of each estimated $300,000-$400,000 outlet redesign, Welburn is fully invested in the process.
According to Welburn, during a meticulous discovery and design process, a confluence of teams from the franchise end and corporate side are charged with determining relevancy and variable design elements, when necessary. Restaurants in more suburban areas such as Garrisonville, Va., or Woodbridge, Va., for example, both of these in Welburn’s stable, may address different patron needs than those in downtown D.C., such as characteristic children’s play places. With free-standing structures undergoing an exterior redesign, the double slope mansard has yielded to what McDonald’s calls a “more relevant arcade design,” or a more contemporary flat roof topped by a sloping curve, along with understated sidewalk-mounted lighting to mitigate the use of glaring outdoor lighting in the past.
Despite redesign having reportedly impacted 2010 sales in Europe and New York, and with McDonald’s retooled menu pleasing more health and nutrition-conscious 21st century palates, Neiss said the company objective “…isn’t only about driving sales, it’s more about being relevant and sustaining the company as a brand image.” In that respect, McDonald’s overall Baltimore - Washington region redesign is expected to unfold over a conservative eight to 10 years from its initial 2006 test period.
"We try to be very reactive and proactive in staying in touch with society as it changes,” Neiss said.