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McDonald's offers food for thought

Don't look for Ronald McDonald or the Hamburglar at McDonald's newest Houston franchise.

Owner-operator John Tillman tore out the slides and merry-go-round when he demolished the 19-year-old McDonald's across the street from the University of Houston.

Instead, the new McDonald's offers students personal computers, copiers, fax machines, a video arcade _ and pizza.

"I just felt that in an environment like this, it would really be good to be able to have a total restaurant," said Tillman, a Houston graduate and former IBM mainframe salesman.

"This is the college Playland as opposed to having the traditional McDonald's where the 5- and 6-year-olds climb and jump," Tillman said.

"That's great. I don't what to minimalize that. But what I was trying to do was capitalize on the arches and present the adults with an adult environment."

He met with officials and students from the University of Houston and nearby Texas Southern University, as well as community leaders from a large neighborhood church, before settling on the new approach.

While they still offer "Happy Meals" and "McNuggets," Tillman's McDonald's features gray carpeting, upholstered chairs that aren't anchored to the floor and colorful neon accents.

"This whole concept . . . looks like a Bennigan's or a Chili's," Tillman said, pointing out the dining area that seats 130. "It's an elevated area and it looks very adult-ish." Outside where a playground once stood is picnic-table-styled seating for about 20 more.

In between are two glassed-in rooms.

One is a study area complete with a Macintosh computer, two IBM personal computers, four copiers, a laserprinter, a fax machine and a person to help work the machinery.

The other room is a small video arcade with three of the latest high-tech pinball machines, three video games and a change machine.

"In my head was an opportunity to facilitate studies and also an opportunity to relieve stress," Tillman said. "You need them both. You don't need just study, study, study. Sometimes you just need to take a break and after you recoup, it's much easier to come back and retain, it's much easier to grasp. That was the rationale behind it."

"It's neat," said Ed Noack, a senior chemical engineering student at Houston, as he sat at a computer terminal Monday. "It's like the only place on campus where you can use a laserprinter. I have an IBM at home, but I don't have a printer _ that's pretty expensive."

Printing out a list of references for his resume, Noack said the prices for the services at McDonald's were cheaper than a local copy center.

"It's something new," said Lakricha Shorter, a sophomore business major at Texas Southern. "When I first saw the menu, I said, "McDonald's sells pizza?' So we came over to check it out, really."

Larry Zimmerman, regional vice president of the McDonald's chain, admitted that it took some convincing for him to accept the computer-video concept.

"It was more like, "Are you crazy?"' he said with a laugh. "It took a lot of persuasion, but I think we as a company are getting rid of the stereotype we have and try to fit ourselves into the community we serve."