Attention, chompers!
At a handful of McDonald's locations around the Valley, drive-through customers like yourselves can do something they can't do at any of the other Golden Arches in town. Mainly, you'll have the rare opportunity to get personal with a teen burger drone.

Or that appears to be one possible benefit of "Face to Face Personal Service Drive-Thru," a secretive test-marketing situation the fast-food giant is trying at at least two Valley locations.

First-time drive-through customers at the store on 4430 East Thomas (the project is also under way at the West Broadway store in Tempe) may be forgiven if they believe they've cruised into a Candid Camera setup. First, they must tool past a truly puzzling sign--the "face to face" silhouettes of a young couple gazing at one another suggest McDonald's has added a dating service.

After driving past the inoperative order board and up to a freestanding stucco stall, they're in for another surprise. In spite of the mysterious "personal service" attention alluded to by the sign, there's not so much as a welcoming lei or even a balloon for the kiddies. Instead of screaming orders into a speaker as they've done for 30 years, car-bound customers at test stores now simply scream their orders at clerks inside a Fotomat-size stall. The clerks, in turn, relay the order through a microphone to the kitchen.

So why mess with success?
"It's supposed to be more personal ordering from a real person, I guess," explained the lethargic-looking high schooler relaying orders from inside one afternoon last week. Sounding none too convinced herself, she shrugged. "They think it gives the drive-through a more human touch, makes it more humane."

Grilled about the rationale behind the innovation that has turned them into living squawk boxes, other Face to Face clerks offered equally baffling explanations.

"It speeds up special orders," one young woman announced authoritatively. "Like if you don't want pickles, that can take five or ten extra minutes."

Shaking his head at his co-worker's ignorance, a teenage colleague triumphantly reveals the real thinking behind Face to Face. "The reason we have it is because it's just better that way."

And a third employee appears bewildered that anyone is even asking about the unusual new service. "We've been doing this forever," she avers. "That booth was here when I first started, and I've been here nearly three months!"

If the explanations offered by the youthful crew fail to cut the mustard, that's probably because the apple turnover doesn't fall far from the tree. Both the manager of the East Thomas store and a media relations employee at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, referred questions to a regional office in Phoenix.

Notoriously tightlipped when it comes to discussing test projects, higher-echelon Golden Archers repeatedly clammed up, passed the buck or resorted to corporate rhetoric when quizzed about the value of Face to Face.

Refusing to characterize the personally manned ordering stalls as a "test," one employee in the Phoenix office explains the experimental project simply as "something we're working on" because of high levels of traffic noise in the area. (Oddly, ambient noise appears to be no problem at dozens of other outlets around town--including several restaurants in the airport flight pattern.)

"This is just a friendlier way of doing things," says customer representative Diana Palatinus. "I don't know about you, but I'd much rather talk to a person than a box."

Even if one agrees that personal drive-through service is the greatest thing since the Egg McMuffin, one can't help wondering how the company has managed to muddle along so many years without it.

"We [wondered] the same thing once we thought about it," Palatinus replies. "It was like, 'Hello? Where have we been?'"

For all the talk of friendly service, regional marketing director Sue Mullins doesn't sound too happy to be fielding questions about the project.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you [Face to Face] is a big test," says Mullins, who declines to reveal the number of stores participating in the experiment. "The thinking is that we're trying to do the very best job we can in drive-through. That's honestly what it's all about."

Asked whether Face to Face will go nationwide, she answers, "I don't know that it will ever get to that point. It might--I doubt it, though." That said, at least a couple of McDonald's regulars can now breathe a sigh of relief.

"Half the convenience of the drive-through is in not having to deal with the kids who work there," says a frequent customer who wants no part of Face to Face.

Grouses another, "I go to McDonald's to pick up a bag of burgers--not to add names to my Christmas-card list.

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Dewey Webb