"Not one student I have asked since the start of classes this September believes that McDonald's has any healthy items on its menu," says Christopher Muller, hospitality professor at Boston University. When he recently asked 75 students where they prefer to go for fast-food, not one picked McDonald's or Burger King. Two picked Wendy's. But roughly half said they preferred Chipotle, Panera and Starbucks.
"I think it is less that McDonald's has lost its way and more that a generation has simply left for a different destination," says Muller.
But McDonald's executives scoff at that. McDonald's attracts 27 million customers a day — a big chunk of them Millennials, says Watson. "Millennials are still coming to McDonald's."
So are even younger customers like 16-year-old Michael Slade, a junior at Dana Hills High School here. But on this particular day, the lure wasn't the menu, but a free coupon his folks had received in the mail to try out Create Your Taste.
Slade, who is very health-conscious, ordered a customized chicken sandwich on a ciabatta roll with lettuce, onions, jalapeños, pickles, guacamole and garlic sauce. He waited seven minutes for his food to arrive — open-faced in a polished wire basket, looking very much like a gourmet burger. It came delivered to his table by a crewmember.
Slade quickly polished-off the burger, and says he would even come back again. "It's a thumbs up," he says. "I like that I got to create it myself exactly the way I want it."
But he says the price is too high.
Create Your Taste a far cry from the $5 Value Meal. A customized burger with a medium drink and fries is $8.29 at this McDonald's.
Read MoreBig shake-up imminent at McDonald's, says Cramer
Collin Philippi, a 14-year-old 9th grader from Laguna Niguel, says he loves the new offerings, but when he comes with his friends, he mostly sticks with the more affordable budget menu. "I only get the build-you-own when I come with my dad."
The higher price-tag isn't the new platform's only potential stumbling block to success. Time is an equally-big issue. Because it takes at least four to seven minutes to prepare orders from the custom platform, it can't even be sold at the drive-thru window — where many McDonald's do up to 70% of their business.
Also, many older consumers are uncomfortable with the new technology. That's why, during busy hours, this particular McDonald's places crewmembers right at the kiosks to show older folks how to use them.
Change is hard. Especially for a massive chain like McDonald's. That's why the new platform needs strong incentives like the free coupons, says Tristano. "We are all creatures of habit," he says. "The likelihood that McDonald's customers will continue to order Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with little or no customization will be high."
But this is the McDonald's of the present racing to become the McDonald's of the future.
Robert Nibeel, who owns this McDonald's restaurant along with 15 others in Southern California, is sold on "Create Your Taste." Two of his locations have the platform and a third will add it before the end of the year. He says it's bringing in incremental business and that on weekends, when folks typically have more time, up to half of the orders are from the new platform. Most importantly, he says, it's attracting younger customers.
"Millennials would much rather order from a machine than face-to-face," says Nibeel. He has two boys ages 16 and 18 "and they're upset we don't have an ordering app yet," he says. Watson says that's in the works and that McDonald's recently added the Apple Pay system where customers can pay with smartphones.
McDonald's is in the midst of reinventing itself, says Watson. The stores are being modernized. A new ad campaign is in the works. And even the way it sells and makes food is in flux.