By Natalie Hayes
CHICAGO (CBS)—The future of McDonald’s arrived in Chicago today, with the opening of a sleek, brand new 19,000-square-foot contemporary restaurant Thursday morning that has risen from the ashes of the iconic Rock-N-Roll McDonald’s.
McDonald’s officials, including President and CEO Steve Easterbrook, joined locals of the River North neighborhood for a private opening on Wednesday, but any signs of Ronald McDonald, Grimace, or the Hamburglar were missing.
Instead, a floating glass garden of ferns and white birch trees accompanies more than 70 trees and shrubs lining the interior walls and more than 1,000 solar panels sitting atop the roof. The new McDonald’s is unrecognizable to those who remember the corner of Clark and Ontario as the home of the iconic Rock-N-Roll McDonald’s– a Chicago landmark since 1983 that encapsulated happy childhood memories for many longtime Chicagoans.
The restaurant is now lined with touch-screen kiosks, a standalone McCafe area and 27-foot windows, but guests will find no sign of the former McDonald’s “Play Place.”
The new River North McDonald’s includes some of the futuristic design elements that are part of the Chicago-based company’s “Experience of the Future” initiative. The company plans to modernize most of its 14,000 McDonald’s locations in the U.S. by 2020, Easterbrook said.
River North Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) said the new design and McDonald’s choice to discard its old “rock n’ roll” theme received overwhelming approval from neighbors.
“I think the Rock N’ Roll McDonalds served a branding purpose, and I think this is symbolic of their commitment to sustainability and those practices moving forward as a company,” Reilly said. “(It’s about) looking more toward modernization, the use of technology and green sustainability.”
The new eco-friendly McDonald’s rose quickly from the dusty rubble that became of the former Rock-N-Roll-themed building when it was demolished 13 months ago, but for the past year the construction zone that sat on the corner of Clark and Ontario during had both tourists and locals alike wondering when—or whether—the 24/7 McDonald’s would return.
Susan Morrow of the River North Residents Association was happy to welcome McDonald’s back to the neighborhood.
“This is a new generation of McDonald’s that we’re really excited to see–we think the outdoor space will be amazing,” Morrow said. “It’s something we needed in the neighborhood–it brings a lightness and a brightness to the neighborhood that we have not had before.”
The steel and timber construction of the building and the expansive pedestrian-centered outdoor spaces (including a park area) create an entirely different feel compared to the old McDonald’s.
“I really appreciated the Rock N’ Roll theme, but that’s sort of a look back at what made McDonald’s great,” said Nick Karavites, the owner of the River North McDonald’s. “So I love that, but I am so much more excited about what we have here now, and I think that once the community and the tourists and everyone visit–that they’re going to appreciate this even more than what we had before.”
Karavites said he has about 100 employees staffed to work in the new restaurant, and plans to hire another 50. He says the ordering kiosks did not result in a staff reduction. Instead, he says, the bulk of the cashier roles were repurposed as servers, runners for mobile orders and other jobs.
Beyond the lines of kiosks that greet customers near the door, cashiers stand by behind counters, ready to take orders the traditional way.
Despite McDonald’s worldwide success, Easterbrook described Chicago as the “heartbeat” of the international McDonald’s brand.
“We have iconic flagship restaurants all around the world, but I would say that given that Chicago is the heartbeat of not just our U.S. business but our worldwide business, that we are standing here in the global flagship restaurant,” Easterbrook said.
That kind of notoriety seems to justify architect Carol Ross Barney’s vision to make the River North McDonald’s a standout addition to the tourist-driven neighborhood. Her firm, Ross Barney Architects, designed the Chicago River Walk among other commercial projects that have taken shape in the city.
“We were able to take a whole city block and turn it into a garden,” she said. “Almost half the site is a pedestrian site, which is extraordinarily valuable in a neighborhood like River North,” Ross Barney said.
Like the previous location, the new McDonald’s will stay open 24 hours a day. Unlike the old days, the new structure doesn’t have a second floor.
Morrow said the cavernous second floor of the old McDonald’s invited crime by offering too many places for the homeless and other late-night visitors to hide.
McDonald’s opens to customers on Thursday.