Big changes planned at McDonald’s in York – as the future of fast food arrives

John Atherton, who runs five McDonald's franchises in and around York, outside the one in Blake Street in the city centre. Photograph: YorkMix
24 Oct 2016 @ 7.58 pm
| Business, Food & Drink

The future of fast food is coming to York.

In the biggest change to the city centre McDonald’s since it opened on Blake Street 30 years ago, it will be completely refitted as part of a £500,000 refurbishment.

The branch is due to close down for two weeks next spring, with provisional plans seeing it reopen at the beginning of May 2017.

Digital technology will then have transformed the experience. Instead of queuing to get to the counter, customers will browse the menu on screens at self-order kiosks.

After making their order and paying by card on the touch screen, they will go and sit down and wait for their food to be brought to the table.

If they are ordering food to go, they will pick it up at a collection point in the restaurant.

This is the latest innovation by McDonald’s York franchisee John Atherton. John runs five restaurants around York, and has ploughed a pioneering path ever since he took them over two and a half years ago.

First in the North

The drive-through restaurant in Poppleton. Photographs: Cloud 9 Leeds
The drive-through restaurant in Poppleton. Photographs: Cloud 9 Leeds

The changes to Blake Street follow the investment in the McDonald’s restaurants in Poppleton, opened in December 2015, and Clifton Moor that both have the new features.

John also oversaw the building of the bigger restaurant at Monks Cross, complete with drive-through option.

When that branch introduced table service, it was one of the first restaurants in the North of England to trial the new service to customers.

Along with the branch at the York Designer Outlet, these are the five restaurants run by John.

The investment in Blake Street will see new kitchens created, a renewed and refreshed dining area, and lots of state-of-the-art tech to make ordering easy.

“You will spend less time queuing, but a little bit longer waiting for your food. So overall the time doesn’t change, but the quality of the experience is that much better.”

Two of the on-screen order points at the Poppleton McDonald's
Two of the on-screen order points at the Poppleton McDonald’s

Previously staff would prepare food in advance based on predicted demand. The new system sees the burgers freshly prepared as you order, in something called Made For You.

John himself finds it easier when he takes his young grandchildren out for a McDonald’s meal at the Poppleton outlet. Leaving them in their buggies while he taps in and pays for the order, he can get them settled at the table before the food is brought to them.

As well as families “the other customer we see using it a lot is the businessman and woman. They will tap out their order and then sit down and do some work.

“That’s a real evolution in customer service.”

Local and global

John presents a cheque for £1,000 to Cathy Waugh after she clocked up 30 years' service
John presents a cheque for £1,000 to Cathy Waugh after she clocked up 30 years’ service

And that’s not the only innovation. “Starting this month there’s a new product called Signature Beef – a much thicker beef patty, a bit like you get at Byron burger,” John told YorkMix.

York is among the first 70 restaurants to pilot it.

John said: “As the franchisee in York we’ve very innovative – we’re always the first to do stuff.”

Because he has signed a 20-year lease he feels able to invest in the restaurants’ future. Another reason is because of the global-local business model run by McDonald’s.

“You can’t say that it’s not a giant global corporation. Yet the way I feel, I am a local businessman.

“That’s why McDonald’s is so strong throughout the world. It gives us a strength that other businesses don’t have.”

He employs local contractors to do work on the restaurants and is keen to both help his workers’ career progress while offering the sort of flexibility that allows them time off when they need it.

As a result “at least 50 people have progressed through to staff management positions”. Meanwhile Cathy Waugh, who works at the Monks Cross branch, has just been awarded £1,000 for 30 years’ service.

Since taking over the franchise in 2014 John has overseen a near-doubling of the workforce – it will employ 430 people by the end of the year.

Loves York

More touch-screen order points in the Poppleton restaurant, and the place where you collect food to go
More touch-screen order points in the Poppleton restaurant, and the place where you collect food to go

But then, no one knows McDonald’s like John. Originally from Barnsley, John took his first job at the restaurant 32 years ago after completing a geography degree. He moved up the ranks very quickly and ended up as the UK’s chief operating officer.

After that he became chief executive of McDonald’s in Scandinavia, and he would conduct business meetings in both English and Swedish.

More recently “I decided I’d had enough of corporate life,” said John, and he moved to Marton-cum-Grafton north of York to be closer to his family, while becoming a local franchisee.

He loves York. As a big foodie he is impressed with the city’s eating out scene, citing Skosh on Micklegate, Le Cochon Aveugle on Walmgate and the Whippet Inn on North Street among his favourites.

And he loves the big events like the Great Yorkshire Fringe and Illuminating York. The new York BID – Business Improvement District – is a positive for the city too, he says.

“I am pleased with the York BID. Andrew Lowson seems to have made some good decisions already. The visibility of the street rangers out there is a great initiative.”

Two concerns

The interior at Poppleton has a modern feel
The interior at Poppleton has a modern feel

John does have a couple of concerns for York though. The first centres on the city’s night-time culture.

He said: “If we are attracting stag and hen dos and granting licences to serve alcohol late, then we need to manage them when they’re in the city centre.”

One improvement he suggests would be to ensure there are toilets open late at night, so people didn’t feel they had to use doorways or alleys.

In Nottingham, he says, they bring in Portaloos at night and at 6am they take them away. York could do the same: it would cost money, but the city would save on the amount of street cleaning required.

Another idea would be to provide a city centre night-time hub where police and paramedics were stationed.

John has one more gripe.

We are an international city. Why on earth do we close at 5 o’clock?

If you go to Leeds, you see trading through till eight and nine at night. If you were to go around York at five o’clock as a tourist, you wouldn’t feel that welcome – but if you go round at 12 o’clock on a Saturday you feel very welcome.

As for the McDonald’s in York more innovations may follow. John doesn’t rule out taking over other branches, and there is talk of being able to order your food on your phone in future.

With him around it seems that fast food is in the fast lane.