Let your finger... Touch-screen, get fat faster

Fast food squawk boxes are so 20th century, and some customers can be forgiven if they've grown tired of straining to hear whether they've been offered a chance to try a gordita today.

Wouldn't it be great to roll up to a Taco Bell, touch a few buttons, and get your food without any static-filled hassle? There's only one problem: the MBAs in the "fast" food industry don't move quite that fast. They're not the most progressive, think outside the Jack-in-the-Box type of people.

According to Chris Paphites of BurgerBusters, which owns 84 Taco Bells in the mid-Atlantic region, the latest run to the border, vis-à-vis drive-thrus, is installing "confirmation boards," view-screens that display your order before you drive around to the window. Expect to see them flickering to life at Charlottesville-area Taco Bells in the near future.

Don't misunderstand, confirmation boards are a good thing. (No doubt, many's the time you've caught an error: Hell-ooo! I said one seven-layer burrito– not seven burritos!) But they're not exactly the height of high-tech, and Paphites isn't sold on the idea of taking the idea a step further with touch-screens.

"I'm not sure our customers would understand how to push, for example, taco minus lettuce," he says. "If they went in there and started pushing buttons and got things wrong, then we'd have to spend extra time to correct them, and it would slow things down."

Julie Pottebaum is with McDonald's corporate office in Oak Brook, Illinois. She says the Golden Arches aren't bending over backwards for touch-screens, either.

"Technology is moving fast and furious, though," she concedes. "Research would have to go into any new program like that before it was put into place."

Well, yeah. Ronald McDonald has seen withering profits lately. Is it wishful thinking that they might pump up the R&D with next generation technology to make their drive-thrus more user friendly? After all, industry-wide, about 65 percent of customers opt for drive-through.

Lunch at a Sheetz convenience store may illustrate the next wave. Granted, Sheetz's deli may not win any gourmet awards, but their touch-screen technology totally rocks.

By simply pressing the images on a screen, customers can order burgers, subs, nachos, salads, you name it all made on the spot to your specifications.

In case you hadn't noticed, the Pennsylvania-based Sheetz chain has been expanding like crazy they're now up to 280 units and counting, each with snazzy touch-screens. Plans are in the works to bring those touch-screens to the pumps, so you can order food while gassing up.

Developed by Atlanta's Radiant Systems, Sheetz's touch-screens might be just what the drive-thru doctor ordered. Mark Haidet, Chief Financial Officer at Radiant, says his firm has installed close to 3,500 touch-screens in restaurants, convenience stores, and movie theaters around the country, many of those in self-service kiosks.

"Oddly enough," he observes, "the fast service restaurant industry has not embraced the technology as quickly as some other industries." Haidet concurs that this is a good example of dinosaur-sized companies dragging their paws into the future.

He points out that Radiant's touch-screen technology is adaptable to any menu, and even facilitates more upsell possibilities in the transaction than does the traditional intercom system.

"The big gating factor, economically speaking," Haidet explains, "is that most of these fast food places do not take credit cards. Cash acceptors are a bit clunky, and consumers haven't really taken a shine to those. Most of the major chains are experimenting with credit cards and pre-paid cards. To the extent that a restaurant adapts those payment options, it makes the self-service transaction quick and easy."

For Haidet, when it comes to seeing touch-screens in fast food restaurants, it's not a matter of if but when. Those fast food giants will eventually come around, he says confidently.

Alas, should we even be trying to make it easier for Americans to order fast food? Perhaps not. If we cared about the health of our fellow citizens, we would make it as difficult as possible to get at those fried and fatty concoctions like forcing customers, before they can order, to win at Risk against Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Or better yet, make everyone read a copy of Eric Schlosser's chilling Fast Food Nation before they pull into a drive-thru. Gulp... so much for that gordita.