BURGER bar in a giant spaceship? It sounds like the perfect marriage for gizmo-happy kids. And yet McDonald’s new Megatron restaurant – a large, silver spaceship overlooking the A604 near Cambridge – could be accused of having had a faint-hearted fit-out which fails to maximise potential.
To be fair, the site and its history hardly inspire great confidence. The spaceship was built several years ago by an eccentric as a restaurant, and neither he nor the subsequent two owners could make it pay. Records from the previous owners, unearthed by McDonald’s, revealed meagre weekly takings of £600.
The location is not ideal. Thirty miles from either Cambridge or Peterborough, and five miles outside of Huntingdon, its best hope would appear to be passing trade – unless it can make such a feature of itself that kids will drag their parents there from miles around.
A small budget was allocated to the site, based on McDonald’s estimates that it might make about £12,000 per week. McDonald’s in-house architect Andrew Deighton had just £170,000 with which to install new kitchens and transform the “tacky” interior. Usually for a site of that size (185 seats) he would, he says, spend around £170,000 on the kitchen and £200,000 on the interior fixtures and fittings.
Having bought the site and contents outright, McDonald’s was keen to incorporate the original furnishings and effects. Serviceable pink and grey plastic seats and tables remain, as does greyish granite flooring. TV screens around the walls were removed, and replaced with pictures of planets, behind rather too reflective glass. There are none of McDonald’s customary fixtures: mirrored walls, planting, and the trademark red and yellow colour scheme.
A grey domed ceiling was painted black, and three large lamps that look like satellite dishes were suspended from it.
Despite the low budget, some high-quality items were included. Deighton installed durable laminate chipboard panels in pink and grey for a sleek wall finish, and panelling manufacturer Polyrey was commissioned to produce an attractive counter using its new solid surfacing material, Antium. Shapes of planets and spaceships were laser-cut into the front.
Polyrey also produced flashy light panels in marbled grey, with red and yellow bulbs – a rare display of McDonald’s corporate colours. These highly specified items sit awkwardly with the downmarket seating. Tables feature a serrated dome in the middle, once lit from within and appropriately spacey looking, but now painted black. Deighton says he might restore the bulbs, but the electrical wiring is considered too dangerous to use, and there was no budget for rewiring. There is still a problem with noise, thanks to the echoey acoustics of the domed ceiling. This also emphasises the loud hum of the air conditioning.
At present, the outlet’s identity is rather confused. From the outside, the Megatron certainly looks the part – a suitably silvery disc, topped with a red dome and the familiar McDonald’s golden arches, complete with a tubular entrance straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Signage is bright and effective. But the inside is essentially a grey and pink version of a McDonald’s restaurant. It doesn’t look enough like a spaceship and yet, as one observer pointed out, neither does it look like a McDonald’s.
The spaceship theme is further diluted with the recent addition of some typical McDonald’s elements. A large cartoon mural has been installed in a kiddies’ corner, along with cartoon-covered children’s chairs and tables. With a little imagination, the company could have created a space-themed cartoon, instead of one depicting the sunny outdoors.
There are any number of ways the space theme could be further exploited to make it more exciting to its potential young audience – without alienating the adults. The original wall screens needn’t have been ripped out; they could instead have played footage from the various moon landings or sci-fi films. Given the budget, uniforms could have been created along the lines of Star Trek crew outfits or space suits. Artificial consoles of bleeping lights would enhance the spaceship theme; interactive space-themed video games could have been installed.
And yet, even this low-key version is proving a huge draw for the surrounding burger lovers. Before Christmas, the outlet was catering for up to six children’s parties at a time. A lot of the adult custom comes from the neighbouring RAF Alconbury; people defecting from their in-house Burger King outlet. Since Christmas, trade has dropped off slightly, but Deighton reckons the outlet is still turning over around £30,000 a week – way above original estimates.
Deighton admits he would like to have gone further with the decor. “Had we known at the time what the business was going to be, we would have done a lot more.”
Encouraged by the local response, McDonald’s is planning further investment in the site. Deighton hopes to decorate the ceiling with a glowing constellation, underlit by UV lamps. The toilets will be refitted, the currently dim lighting will be brightened and acoustics and flooring improved. McDonald’s is currently negotiating to buy some adjacent land to create a drive-through extension, and also increase parking space, which is currently tight. Deighton also hopes to replace the chairs and tables, “to bring it up to the McDonald’s standard fit-out”.
But Cambridge regional marketing manager Andrew Corcoran plays down the importance of theming to this site. “I believe that any McDonald’s store on the same site would have done as well as this one.” But with twice the budget and imagination, surely the themed one might be doing twice as well.
As the quota of franchised outlets (currently 15%) rises to the desired levels of 40% (and perhaps 50% by the turn of the century), the franchisees will be given flexibility to tweak the appearance of their outlets.
Deighton says McDonald’s is already trying to depart from the traditional look. “We want to vary the outlets so customers get a completely different experience.” o