The other day I wrote about how surprising it was that robot Zambonis aren’t yet widespread. Even more amazing is the fact that fast-food joints aren’t yet entirely staffed by robots.
It seems like a new tale of fast-food employee grossness emerges weekly, with the latest involving a KFC worker in Wales who claimed on Facebook to have inserted pubic hair into customers’ meals. KFC said it had investigated the incident and found it to be untrue, but the damage was already done.
Such incidents, many of which turn out to be real indeed, are almost a form of corporate terrorism. While it’s highly unlikely that the average customer will ever get a meal contaminated with pubes, boogers, spit or other bodily fluids, hearing about such isolated cases is enough to sour perceptions and put a person off fast food entirely.
I was flipping through a recent edition of Canadian Business magazine yesterday when I came across an interesting tidbit. Apparently, Domino’s has completely reformulated its pizza. It happened way back in January and I vaguely remember it, but it obviously didn’t register. I try to stay on top of fast-food news, so naturally I’m ashamed of myself for initially missing it.
There are a couple of fascinating tidbits about this situation that make it more than just your typical “new and improved” story. First off, here’s the long-form commercial posing as documentary from Domino’s that explained the change:
What’s obviously striking about the switch is that Domino’s broke a cardinal rule of advertising: in quoting customers saying its pizza tasted “like cardboard,” the chain admitted its product was below average. Not surprisingly, the unconventional ad campaign got a lot of media attention when it was rolled out, which perhaps counts as a success for Domino’s. Indeed, according to the Canadian Business tidbit, the chain saw first-quarter U.S. sales go up 12%.
What’s even more interesting, though, is that the new-and-improved pizza was U.S. only, and from what I can tell, it remains that way. Domino’s in Canada, for example, has different ownership and its outlets are therefore not required to use U.S. recipes, according to the Vancouver Sun. Unless the media has simply failed to report the international expansion of the new U.S. recipe, which is doubtful, or the rest of us are still eating the old cardboard stuff.
I can understand trying to make waves with an unorthodox advertising strategy, but isn’t this a little overboard for the company? Is Domino’s hoping that people in other countries don’t realize it has acknowledged its product to be crap? And if that’s the case, why do people outside the U.S. still eat Domino’s pizza? Would we still drive cars if the makers told us they were junk, or would we buy a pair of shoes if the retailer said they were shoddy?
Ultimately, I’m not sure who’s more to blame for the illogic of the situation - Domino’s or its non-U.S. customers.
UPDATE: I got a tweet from Domino’s in the UK - they say they’ve always used a different recipe than the U.S. I’ve never had Domino’s in the UK, so I can’t say whether that’s a good or bad thing.
In my ongoing quest to have teenage fast-food employees replaced by robots, I present another video that makes the case. In this video, a pair of guys pull off a bit of “social engineering” - essentially a scam based on a lie - to get some free food from McDonald’s. They simply go through a drive-through and completely make up a story about how the restaurant screwed up their dad’s order. Check out the video:
As I’ve ranted about before, using low-paid workers is becoming an increasingly bad idea for fast-food chains. The workers, usually minimum-wage-earning teenagers, care very little about their menial, repetitive jobs and therefore do some crazy stuff, like take baths in the restaurants’ sinks or stick boogers in the food, thus doing major image damage to their employer. In this case, it wasn’t the workers themselves doing anything patently wrong, but they allowed themselves to be fooled by a simple scam, which ultimately costs the chain in lost product and revenue.
I’m pleased to report that when I was in high school, my friends and I used to routinely scam McDonald’s with a similar, albeit somewhat gross trick. We would order our food inside the restaurant as usual and then, just before we were finished eating it, one of us would reach down our pants and pluck out a pube, then stick it in the burger or fries. We’d then take the offending food back up to the counter and, with a look of disgust on our face, complain to the counter help that there was hair in our food. It worked like a charm - we’d get a new, free burger or whatever every time!
Needless to say, such tricks wouldn’t work with robot employees. People would have to think of new tricks, like bringing motor oil with them to put in the burgers.
Regular readers of this blog know I’ve been questioning exactly why fast-food chains continue to use low-paid teenage labor to make their food, especially in light of PR fiascos like the Domino’s workers who put boogers in sandwiches or the Burger King employee who took a bath in a restaurant sink.
As if on cue, a pair of entrepreneurs are coming to the rescue with pizza-making vending machines. Over in Europe, “Let’s Pizza” has a machine that can create a pie in about three minutes at a cost of five euros. The machine lets the customer pick their toppings, then watch as the pizza is assembled and cooked. Here’s a Reuters report on the machine:
An American company, La Pizza Presto, has the same idea with its vending machine but promises an even faster cooking time at 90 seconds.
All of this reminds of a speech that Colin Angle, CEO of robot vacuum cleaner maker iRobot, gave at a conference last year. Angle told the audience that he considered the vending machine the perfect robot: not only was it totally autonomous, but an idiot could work it. Needless to say, if a robot vending machine can make a pizza, couldn’t it also make Big Macs, Subway sandwiches or Starbucks coffee?
Ah, Domino’s. Not only are they delivering pizza, they’re also delivering quality material for my book. In a week when I’ve been focusing on robots and how they might break out into the mainstream, a couple of dim-witted employees at the pizza chain had to go and post this video to YouTube:
If you haven’t heard, the video of these employees pretending to stick boogers into sandwiches went viral and caused quite the PR headache for the company. The media went whole-hog on it and the president of the company even took to YouTube with a response/apology.
This reminds me of a story I did last year on fast food technology that looked at HyperActive Technologies, a company that makes a robotic order-taking system for U.S. chicken chain Zaxby’s. Company founder R. Craig Coulter’s remarks that the fast food industry was a laggard when it came to automation were pretty much proven with the counter from a McDonald’s executive, who said the secret to good service was making sure you were properly staffed at all times.
The big problem with McDonald’s view, however, is that the teenage, minimum-wage employees manning its restaurants are just like those at Domino’s, and therefore liable to go sticking boogers into burgers just for kicks. Maybe the huge PR damage such episodes cause might finally push some of these fast-food chains to invest in safe robots to replace the risky teenagers. It’s not like their tasks aren’t largely automated and repetitive anyway.