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McDonald’s Hong Kong CEO talks technology, healthier eating and the battle on straws

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Randy Lai, CEO of McDonald’s in Hong Kong, is a well of impressive statistics: the chain serves one million customers locally each day; one of its bestsellers in the city is the Filet-O-Fish, with 23 million of them consumed last year; branches across Hong Kong have 20,000 light bulbs, which are now all LED.

But the statistic she’s most proud of this year? The number of downloads of the McDonald’s Hong Kong app since its launch in April: one million. “So that’s roughly one in seven people in the city who have downloaded it,” she tells The Mag at the McDonald’s headquarters in Dorset House. “I’m really happy about this – it shows how much our customers support us.”

Customers place orders on the app and pick up the order upon arrival by scanning a QR code in the restaurant, eliminating the need to queue. The app also offers coupons and nutritional information for its products, and lets users place delivery orders.

It’s just one way McDonald’s has rapidly become a more high-tech food company in its efforts to compete in an ever-evolving F&B market. Last year, it introduced Experience of the Future, a brand new service concept that embodies the next generation of restaurant experience, burger experience, convenience and service. Self-ordering kiosks and digital menu boards are now available in a majority of branches. And after 6pm those branches offer table service. “Whether you buy a coke or an ice cream cone, we’ll serve it to you. It’s an upgrade of both the hardware and the software, to create a holistic solution for a next-generation experience,” says Lai.

Unfortunate for people working in Taikoo Place, the McDonald’s restauarant on Hoi Wan Street has not yet been outfitted with the Experience of the Future system. “But I hope it will be done soon,” Lai says.

Apart from the growing use of technology, another modern issue fast food companies are confronting is sustainability, especially single-use plastic. In September, McDonald’s Hong Kong introduced No Straw Monday, meaning no plastic straws will be placed on the counter on Mondays (although customers may request them). The initiative is not entirely new; the company tried the same thing 10 years ago but soon cancelled the programme – the public wasn’t ready back then. But times have changed.

“At the time we were the only company doing something like this, and it wasn’t well-received by customers,” says Lai. “This time we’re committed. It’s been a decade and Hongkongers have accepted this idea. Now it’s just for Mondays, but in the long run, my ultimate goal is no straws every day.”

The challenge with this and every change that McDonald’s makes, says Lai, is the sheer number of people it affects each day. “Every day I am serving a million customers from all walks of life, so I want to make sure we’re going at the right pace whenever we introduce something new. Every three months we’ll evaluate the No Straw programme to see if we’re ready to expand it beyond Mondays.”

Also along the lines of sustainability, McCafé has begun selling tumblers and tote bags with pockets that can hold the reusable coffee containers. Lai says the company’s focus has shifted to practical products such as these, while the emphasis on Happy Meal toys and books for kids has lessened.

“We want to do something with more meaning,” she says, showing off lidded cups made in partnership with Japanese brand Rivers. “This cup looks nice but also has practical usage, and we want to encourage people to bring their own cups.”

One aspect about McDonald’s Hong Kong that Lai thinks gets short shrift is its efforts to make foods healthier. Over the years, the company has switched to using sunflower and canola blended oil that’s low in saturated fat, with almost no trans fat, and it’s introduced the option of substituting fries with unseasoned corn for no added cost in Extra Value Meals. “We sold about one million servings of Caesar Salad each year, This leads me to believe McDonald's must be the biggest seller of salad in Hong Kong,” she says. “People don’t think about McDonald’s that way.”

In a city where corporate leadership is dominated by men, it is still noteworthy that the CEO of McDonald’s in Hong Kong is a woman. Lai says the company is 60 percent women, who can benefit from its Women’s Leadership Network.

“The whole objective is to support our female employees to reach their fullest potential and show them more care,” she says. “At the end of the day, a female worker has a lot more pressure than a male worker. They take care of family and kids, and want job satisfaction. How do they juggle these things? We try to help with our ethos ‘women support women’.”

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