The Long-Distance Burger


You know how you ease up to the “Order Here” sign in the McDonald’s drive-thru and the scratchy sounds bursting from the intercom resemble no intelligible language whatsoever except for “ketchup” and “today”? Or was it “toupee”? Well, McDonald’s is testing a fix for that, one even “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser couldn’t have foreseen. It involves routing all drive-thru orders to a call center somewhere far, far away.

Exactly how communications spanning 1,000 miles and back would be substantially clearer than the 25 feet from your car window to the inattentive attendant with the headset inside the second window is unclear. In theory, you could get stuck with double onions via India or North Dakota just as easily. But that’s what the tests at secret McDonald’s sites in the Pacific Northwest are designed to determine.

Anyone who’s driven home hungry only to discover a sandwich of fish drowning in tartar sauce where a quarter-pounder with cheese was supposed to await will appreciate McDonald’s efforts to get drive-thru orders correct for the first drive-away.


Citibank, IBM, Ford, GE and Dell have successfully (in their view) outsourced customer service calls to India, where labor is cheap, English is common and our nighttime is their daytime. With today’s technology, the location of the outsourced telephone desk is immaterial, as long as McDonald’s doesn’t serve curry.

But the fries-with-that outsourcing test does spark curiosity about what other communications might be moved far away to save time and money. In reality, almost any public announcement could be outsourced. When the day’s cafeteria menu is read on each school’s PA system, the low-paid reader could be in Bangalore or Bismarck. Same for the authoritarian airport voice threatening all sorts of terrible fates for unattended luggage. Or the jolly airplane “pilot” who points out interesting sights along the way. Who said he needs to be on the plane with you?