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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fries From Afar at McDonald's

SANTA MARIA, California -- Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry -- but hers has an unusual geographic reach.

"Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?" Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line.

What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Vargas' workplace here on California's central coast. She was at a McDonald's in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Gillette, Wyoming.

Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants over the Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

Vargas seems unfazed by her job, even though it involves being subjected to constant electronic scrutiny. Every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations.

The pay may be the same, but this is a long way from flipping burgers.

"Their job is to be fast on the mouse -- that's their job," said Douglas King, chief executive of Bronco Communications, which operates the call center.

"It's really centralizing the function of not only taking the order but advising the customer on getting more out of the product, which can sell more -- at least in theory," said Joseph Fleischer, chief technical editor for Call Center Magazine, a trade publication.

Customers pulling up to the drive-through menu are connected to the computer of a call-center employee using Internet calling technology. The first thing the McDonald's customer hears is a prerecorded greeting in the voice of the employee. The order-takers' screens include the menu and an indication of the whether it is time for breakfast or lunch at the local restaurant. A "notes" section shows if that restaurant has called in to say that it is out of a particular item.

When the customer pulls away from the menu to pay for the food and pick it up, it takes around 10 seconds for another car to pull forward. During that time, King said, his order-takers can be answering a call from a different McDonald's where someone has already pulled up.

Some 50 McDonald's franchises are testing remote order-taking, some using Bronco Communications. Others are using Verety, a company based in Oak Brook, Illinois, that has taken the concept further by contracting workers in rural North Dakota to take orders from their homes.

The call-center workers do have some advantages over their on-the-scene counterparts. Vargas said it was strange to be so far from the actual food. But after work, she said, "I don't smell like hamburgers."