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.