Rensi PLACES IN THE HEARTH JUST LIKE HOME COOKIN' AT MCD'S NEW EATERY, ESPECIALLY IF YOU'RE USED TO EATING WITH PREZ

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DARIEN, Ill.-Driving out to McDonald's new Hearth Express restaurant, I never expected to see McDonald's USA President-CEO Edward Rensi-let alone spy him working the counter in a suit and tie.

Neither did I expect to eat dinner with Mr. Rensi, who decided to keep me company while I consumed a plate of rotisserie chicken, twice-baked squash, baked beans and rye bread.

As we walk toward a wrought-iron table on the restaurant's outdoor patio, Mr. Rensi notices I had forgotten a knife and fork. "Sit down-I'll get them for you," he says. And he does.

"I already had a chicken breast, corn, squash, mashed potatoes and gravy," Mr. Rensi says, returning to the table.

He had stopped by with his wife for a quick dinner after work. But the executive who got his start managing a McDonald's restaurant in upstate New York found himself sticking around to give pointers to new crew members.

"When you bus tables, be sure to use a tray," he counsels Bob Van Poppelen, a McDonald's home office director who's nevertheless collecting plates and utensils from the tables. "You see, what happens when you bump into a customer, you'll have a big mess."

There are plenty of customers to bump into. At 7:30 on a Thursday night, the tables are filled and the line at the counter stretches 10 people long.

Situated next to a Wal-Mart strip mall on what Mr. Rensi calls a "prime piece of McDonald's real estate," Hearth Express resembles a single-family home. The restaurant now seats 75, not enough for the larger-than-expected dine-in audience. McDonald's will soon double the seating by adding a front porch.

McDonald's has dubbed the restaurant "Your home cookin' place."

"I'm in no rush" to build additional units, Mr. Rensi says. "We've got to iron the bugs out of this place first." When pressed, he says fewer than 10 Hearth Express units are planned for the area in the near future.

He says McDonald's held off on plans to promote Hearth Express with local direct mail from Frankel & Co., Chicago, finding that the restaurant was "busy enough on its own."

The restaurant did begin running print ads in local newspapers last week, trying to stir up takeout business by advising customers to phone or fax in their orders.

"If you can't find the time to join us in our dining room, Hearth Express will make it easy for you to enjoy delicious, home-style fare in yours," say the ads from Frankel.

"A big part of this business is going to be catering, " Mr. Rensi explains. In the works is a video pitching Hearth Express' fare for office parties and business meetings.

McDonald's may also test a breakfast buffet.

Mr. Rensi says the whole point to building Hearth Express was to learn new things about the restaurant business, not to copy Boston Chicken as is widely believed.

"McDonald's is strategic rather than tactical," Mr. Rensi says. "The decision to build Hearth Express was made 31/2 years ago."

When I point out the similarities to Boston Chicken-the rotisserie birds, the comparable side dishes, the pot pies, the employee uniforms-Mr. Rensi points out the differences.

"Do they have ham?" he asks. "Or fresh baked bread?"

"No," I must answer.

"What kind of desserts do they serve? And do they have an outdoor patio? Meat loaf?"

Actually, there has been talk of meat loaf at Boston Chicken, Mr. Rensi concedes. Further, Boston Chicken CEO "Scott Beck was here a few weeks ago-he said he loved everything."

As for sales, Mr. Rensi says a regular McDonald's, open 5 or 6 more hours a day, does more business than Hearth Express, but not much. McDonald's restaurants average $1.7 million in annual sales.

We talk of many other things before I head out: Mr. Rensi's first car, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the changing face of mass media.

"The best way to reach the mass audience is still on CBS, NBC and ABC," Mr. Rensi says, "but the whole world of media is changing. Fox came along and proved nothing is sacred."

Nothing illustrates this point so well as Hearth Express' dessert menu. Could this be McDonald's, serving lemon chiffon cake?

"Why don't you take something home with you?' he asks. "Come on," he persists when I decline. "How about a lemon cake?"

So the No. 2 executive at the world's largest fast-food chain sends me packing with a cake box and an admonishment to drive carefully.

When I express my surprise at our chance meeting, he replies: "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart."

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