McDonald's to expand table service in break with tradition

McDonald's Corp. plans to offer table service at all its U.S. restaurants, upending decades of fast-food tradition in a bid to placate pickier customers.

Table service is currently in about 500 locations, but will be rolled out to the entire U.S. chain, McDonald's said Thursday at an event in New York. The company also is bringing mobile ordering and payments to the country in 2017, as well as more digital kiosks.

McDonald's already has table service at some locations in New York, Florida and Southern California, as well as many places abroad. It's coming soon to markets such as Boston and San Francisco, the company said. New positions will be created at restaurants to serve food and help customers with touch-screen orders.

The shift is significant for a company most responsible for popularizing fast food -- along with a more stripped-down approach to restaurant service. But competition and the rise of fast-casual chains have elevated expectations. Customers also are looking to technology to help make restaurants more convenient.

"Customers are getting increasingly demanding, and their expectations will only grow," Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook said at the event.

A drop in the cost of groceries has added pressure to fast-food chains this year because it's increasingly cheap for customers to eat at home. Restaurant companies also have blamed anxiety around the presidential election for hurting results. McDonald's shares are up just about 1 percent in 2016, lagging behind the 7 percent increase for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

The new approach may bring in the kind of customers who balk at lines, said Ivan Feinseth, analyst at Tigress Financial Partners.

"It will make it look less congested at the point of ordering," he said. "Then people feel they won't have to wait that long."

Earlier this month, the world's biggest restaurant chain said it was planning a "significant" boost in technology spending. The investment will help fund the new self-serve kiosks and mobile-ordering application. The plan includes expanding a smartphone ordering app across its 14,000 domestic locations, starting next year.

McDonald's had fallen behind competitors in technology. Dunkin' Donuts and Taco Bell already allow diners to order via smartphones, and Starbucks Corp. boasts millions of active rewards members. McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, is looking to grab some of those consumers with its own faster and more convenient service.

For 60 years, McDonald's dictated how customers ordered and got food, Easterbrook said.

"That's changing now," he said. "It's a totally different mindset."

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