Restaurant chains are finding myriad uses for artificial intelligence (AI). At Starbucks, it helps with labor scheduling, while Taco Bell and McDonald’s are using the tech to suggest certain menu items to customers, and machines are taking voice orders at Domino’s Pizza locations.
To be sure, AI has a growing role inside many industries, but it takes on a different meaning in restaurants, which employ a slew of people who frequently interact directly with consumers. These tech investments from major chains promise to change how customers connect with restaurants—not only over the phone but also inside the locations themselves. Traffic for many chains is difficult to come by, and companies are investing in more technology to give themselves an advantage at a time of intense foodservice competition.
At the same time, the efforts are coming as restaurants face more labor pressure than at any time in recent history. Chains believe the technology can not only help sales but also can ease some of the labor challenges inside their restaurants.
Last year, Starbucks worked with an artificial intelligence effort that it called “Deep Brew.” That system powered the company’s personalization engine and helped manage inventory while optimizing labor. That system has helped reduce the number of administrative tasks inside restaurants, which has freed employees to interact with customers.
There’s evidence these endeavors are already having an impact on what customers order. Last spring, McDonald’s acquired Dynamic Yield, a company that gives Amazon-like abilities to its digital drive-thru menu boards. The boards suggest certain menu items based on the time of day, the weather and how busy the store is. Operators say the technology is already paying dividends in the form of higher average check.
As if to double down on this idea, McDonald’s turned around and bought an artificial intelligence company called Apprente that will ultimately use voice technology to take orders in the chain’s drive-thrus.
It’s not just big chains, either. Breakfast and lunch chain Snooze, an A.M. Eatery and burger chain Good Times are both testing AI-powered software to take orders. The program has already demonstrated an ability to get consumers to add more items to their orders.
And AI-enabled ordering is also coming to an unexpected area: phone calls. Wingstop and Domino’s were both working last year to add voice ordering capabilities to their phone orders. For each company, the strategy is practical: Despite the rapid growth in online ordering for items such as pizza and chicken wings, a percentage of the consumer still prefers to simply call the restaurant. Digitizing those orders frees up workers to make pizzas and chicken wings.
Domino’s also underwent a voice-ordering test in 40 restaurants, and the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based pizza chain was eager to get it into more locations. Those efforts take time, however, because voice ordering technology needs to learn how to interact with humans. “It’s complex to do,” Domino’s Chief Technology Officer Kelly Garcia said last year. “I’d argue that our bot is way ahead of other technology.”
A modular robotics system has been helping the foodservice team at the Seattle Mariners’ T-Mobile Park with pizza prep.