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At a time when most of McDonald’s competitors are still shell-shocked from the recent recession, the fast-food giant is undertaking its biggest store-by-store makeover in the chain’s 56-year history: The 500-pound clown of fast food is trying to look more like a grown-up.It’s a $1 billion-plus undertaking that McDonald’s and its franchisees hope, by 2015, will have the vast majority of America’s 14,000 McDonald’s looking comfortable enough to hang out in long after you’ve gobbled down your burger, fries — and smoothie.

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For the next generation of McDonald’s customers, the notion of what a McDonald’s restaurant looks like inside and out could be turned on its head. Goodbye, fiberglass tables and industrial steel chairs. Adios, neon-yellow, bright-red interiors. Hello, wooden tables, comfortable faux leather chairs and interiors newly painted in muted oranges, yellows and even subtle greens.

Take away all the McDonald’s signage — and the familiar front counter area — and customers who were to drive by or step inside wouldn’t likely know they were face-to-face with a McDonald’s. Even from the street, many of the changes are immediately apparent. No more clown-red roofs. No more confusion about what door to use. And that all-too-familiar white facade has been replaced with more inviting earth tones and glass. McDonald’s isn’t just doing this to make customers cozy. It’s doing it to try to quash its rivals — particularly Burger King and Wendy’s — that don’t have McDonald’s deep pockets and the recent sales success necessary to make such costly upgrades. It’s doing it to try to pry customers away from slightly pricier casual chains, including Panera Bread and even Chipotle, the Mexican chain that had once been partly owned by McDonald’s. And it’s doing it to begin cementing a new image of McDonald’s in the minds of consumers.

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If the new look proves to be a hit, it could redefine America’s biggest restaurant chain and nudge competitors at all ends of the spectrum to find some way to respond. If consumers don’t buy in, however, it could become McDonald’s $1 billion folly. With this change, McDonald’s risks looking so different from the McDonald’s most Americans have grown up with that a key part of its customer base — namely, families with young kids — could feel less welcome.

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