McDonald’s has refurbished a Manhattan store at 85th and 3rd Avenue in a style that I have never seen before. Not only is the interior far more design conscious, it also satisfies many of the needs of the modern day 3rd place. That place which is not the home, nor the office — a market that has so far been dominated by Starbucks.
Passersby are looking into the window of, what is after all just a McDonald’s, starring at it and trying to figure out what it is. It is actually fun seeing people’s reactions as they walk past. The expressions are a combination of confusion and delight. It is great to see a shop front having that effect. Why the light green colors? Why the swirling thumb prints of words on the store front? Even from the street it is clear that the interior is something that we are more likely to associate with an airport in Europe than the familiar fast food brand.
Bright colors are used throughout in a way that reminds me of Migros (A Swiss and Turkish supermarket chain which uses orange) or Coffee Day (A fun Indian coffee chain where there is a lot of red and chrome) or even Mexican calendar posters of hillside houses or maybe just the Ikea restaurant.
The light wood screens are used both downstairs, before the counters, and upstairs to break up the line of sight and give a feeling of separate spaces. It is a stark contrast to the less-welcoming orange plastic seats we may remember from traditional McDonald’s stores. The lighting also adds to the color, highlighting alcoves, condiment areas and bins.
The real surprise though comes when you go upstairs. In front of the floor to ceiling plate glass are circular tables with loose colored seats. Loose seats are unusual in a fast food store because they need to be repositioned and could become victims of horse play.
Then as you turn around a long room awaits you, with a series of booths. The restaurant reopened only two weeks ago and the facilities have yet to be found, so there have only been three or four people there on the two occasions that I have visited.
The second floor is divided into four spaces. Firstly the circular coffee tables already mentioned, then a series of booths, again with the slatted wood dividers breaking up the space. Then a second series of smaller tables around, of all things — a laptop lane! More of that later, but the room ends in an alcove room beyond the main room and alongside the restrooms. During my visits this space has largely been used by the staff, to take a break, but provides almost an anteroom feel.
The laptop lane is of course the more important feature for those meeting others or working from adhoc locations between appointments. It is a long counter table that seats sixteen people.
Now, if you haven’t heard, McDonald’s has been providing free Wi-Fi using AT&T / Wayport as its provider for several months now. The service is adequate though using it for a video Skype connection I was told that it was more jittery than on my usual connection.
Now that the internet needs of the mobile worker are met, what about power? This is where the laptop lane really steps the pressure up for Starbucks. Between each of the light units of that lighting strip that you see over the counter are a pair of power outlets.
It was after finding these lighting strips that the location really started to have more potential. If you have travelled from coffee shop to coffee shop, you know that so many locations tease the laptop user by providing Wi-Fi connectivity but not power. Making real work of any duration impractical. Starbucks, and a very small number of independent locations, have a Wi-Fi service that has adequate bandwidth and is maintained effectively enough for the trip not to be a very chancy potential waste of time. The combination of a reliable internet connection and power is the key. Barnes and Noble, for example, do not provide power. Independent locations tend to have fewer tables in NYC, so at the weekend it isn’t really considered polite to be hogging them for hours at a time.
Other niceties are that the second floor is largely empty so far, and the fun way the designed interior is completed with friendly signage. There are no signs asking for a maximum 20 minute seating time. The environment is positively welcoming.
While the location is very nicely designed, it leaves one obvious area which may be an insurmountable barrier in attracting the beautiful people from Starbucks. Yes, the food. Having now tried both the breakfast menu and an angus burger in good faith, I can’t say that I want to eat them more than I have to. The food is really too salty, and the fat and sugar levels make it incompatible with a regular laptop location. McDonald’s have succeeded in building a location which fits with the attempt of the McCafe branding to broaden the audience (this location is no longer a McCafe) but the location, not only would allow McDonald’s to sell a healthier set of meals, more suitable for regular consumption, but actually seems to call out for it and even to need it in order to be popular. It runs the risk of attracting a non McDonald’s customer who isn’t going to be able to buy more than a coffee.
One other potential problem is that the stools in the laptop lane area are fixed to the floor, which can become uncomfortable over time. I was certainly finding that I desperately wanted to drag the stool around a bit to adjust for comfort while using the laptop at an effective angle. Having said this, it was workable, and could even be used for small group meetings or as a coworking space and will definitely give Starbucks a run for its money. One also has to wonder how many people will pay $30 per day, or $50 and up per month, for a coworking space elsewhere, if they find like minded friends migrating to quiet second floor facilities like this which are free and at a more local location. For McDonald’s the store design would appear to be more about winning customers from Starbucks than it is about maximizing the bottom line from existing customers. As such it is a gutsy move in the current market.
The store at 1499 3rd Avenue and 85th Street (2 minutes from the 4,5,6 at 86th Street) is open twenty four hours a day though the second floor is only open from 8am to 8:30pm. The location is a 7,500 square foot company store, leased by Golden Arch Realty Corp., IL.