Trend Watch: Fancy Fast Food

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Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, Quarter Pounder… Eames chair? One of these things is not like the other, but if a forward-thinking fast food industry has anything to do with it, lowbrow will no longer be a descriptor for purveyors of insta-food. Eateries like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Blimpie are angling for an upgrade, a palatable modernism that makes sleekly generic design easy for the masses to swallow.

As Mike Albo points out in a column for the Daily Beast, fast food (despite a slight dip in sales from several years ago) ain’t going away any time soon: “Unless the world suddenly turns its golf courses into organic farms, there will be a greater demand for fast food at prices that income-challenged citizens can enjoy in the urban sprawl while they try to afford health insurance.”

Albo visits Manhattan’s newest Mickey D’s outpost, a space remade as “McCafé” in an effort to add an urbane, European edge to its famous dollar menu. Cappuccino drinkers lounge in “spruced up” dining rooms, complete with brightly painted walls, minimal decor, and knockoff design-y seating. In a similar move, Burger King deployed a franchise-wide redesign last fall (60 so far, all 12,000 branches in the coming months), a concept called 20/20 that includes “LCD menu screens, corrugated metal and brick walls, a rotating flame chandelier in the dining area, as well as an exterior that emphasizes the Home of the Whopper tagline.”

Blimpie, the slightly-more-terrible-but-not-by-much sandwich shop cousin to Subway is hopping on the renovation train too, following a logo relook from early 2009 that had many wondering what their branding experts could have been smoking. Incorporating “Mid Century Modern design cues taken from Charles and Ray Eames works,” the stores will factor in a “subtle color palette, light-stained tables and chairs with splashes of bright-colored hues throughout…. Natural design elements, such as steel and wood, are integrated into the intrinsic nature of the design itself.” Sounds revolutionary.

We have to wonder if all this image-scrubbing and lily-gilding is targeted toward the current customer, or a projected market. HuffPo reports that fast-food restaurants “typically get almost two-thirds of their business from drive-through or carryout orders.” If the Blimpie’s, McDonald’s, and Burger Kings of the world can convert some of its transitory traffic into eat-in customers, then boom, the ambiance trick will have worked. As Albo puts it: “Eating our meat paddies [sic] and McFlurries on reproductions of Jacobsen chairs signifies the final and complete digestion of midcentury modern decor into everyday American life.”

Of course, it’s always a gamble to try and brainwash the consumer, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea — née Starbucks — being one example. The renovated coffeehouse, one of the original in the ‘bucks empire which started in Seattle in 1971, will serve wine and beer in addition to coffee to better serve its yuppified customer, a busy consumer who needs a “third location” between work and home to manage calendars, update blogs, go on blind dates, and decompress after a long day.

Will the face of fast food change without overhauling the menus? We’re not sure. But judging from the looks of a recent project by Access Agency, we’d wager to guess the next step is in the packaging:

What do you think? Will a revamped atmosphere make you more likely to indulge in fast food? Or does it matter?