America may have started the fast-food chain restaurant, but France perfected it.
McDonald’s has been testing a new kind of restaurant design overseas, and today debuted the first U.S. restaurant based on the concept at 809 Sixth Ave. The French-style McDonald’s has three distinctive features: its architecture, concierges and a standalone McCafe with an expanded pastry collection.
“We really invested here to try to disrupt one of the hardest places to do business and one of the most rewarding,” says PJ Fonseca, the franchisee who owns the new Chelsea restaurant. “We’re changing the culture to make it customer-facing."
That begins with the design, which was created by architect Patrick Norguet, though Fonseca (who went to school for architecture) contributed his notes on adapting the interior elements for New York. The decor conforms to current minimalist trends, with a mix of longer tables (some wide enough for laptops — the restaurant has free wi-fi) in addition to booths and regular two- and four-person tables.
“It’s sleek, it’s modern, it fits into the New York style of user,” says Fonseca. “You have that ambiance you want in a New York restaurant, you have table service and people following up with you, ‘How’s your food?’ We’re trying to keep contact with you until you walk out the door.”
It’s an interesting move, as industry trends are moving in the direction of ever-decreasing human interaction, especially the almost totally automated Eatsa, the California quinoa automat restaurant that has already opened a second location in the city.
While the half-dozen digital ordering kiosks make sense from a business standpoint — people order more at them — there’s every attempt to interact with customers, from a greeting at the door (on press day, a bilingual employee greeted everyone and assisted several customers in Spanish) to delivering your food to your table, then coming around to make sure you’re enjoying it. There are also regular cashiers if you prefer to order the olf-fashioned way.
Menu-wise, all the classics are accounted for, with the addition of three Signature Crafted sandwiches: pico guacamole, maple bacon dijon and sweet barbecue with bacon. (We tried the last one, which contained unadvertised grilled onions and a slice of non-American cheese, so don’t think you’re just ordering a “flavor.”) The sandwiches can be made with a single quarter-pound beef patty, or fried or grilled chicken chicken, and placed on a choice of traditional sesame or a denser artisanal bread bun.
Separate from the food for those who just want a coffee and pastry is a McCafe, a standalone half-circle counter in the center of the restaurant with its own cashier, counter seating and serving a selection of “French-inspired” pastries, which are baked daily.
These were the real surprise of the new location — we got to try the chocolatine, which is in everything but name a chocolate croissant with three stripes of chocolate rather than the usual two and made with the same three-butter process used in France. The result is a soft and dense but still flaky shell and real dark chocolate, not too sweet and definitely not available for $1.29 anywhere else (though it is a smaller version than usual).
The regular croissant (also small) is the same price, while the rest of the treats — chocolate chip cookies, "muffin toppers" (about the size of the palm of your hand) in lemon poppyseed, double chocolate and blueberry flavors, and cinnamon cream cheese and raspberry pastries — are 99 cents or two for $1.79.
All of these changes add up to what Gino Potesta, the New York regional vice president of McDonald’s, describes as “a journey to modernize our restaurants to create a more customized and comforting customer experience.”