In recent years, restaurants from White Castle to Wendys have invested in AI technology for drive-thrus. They say it’s a way to ease the burden on overworked employees and a solution to bogged down drive-thrus overwhelmed by a surge of customers.
But customers and workers may not be enthusiastic about the technology.
Frustrated customers have already documented instances of AI getting orders wrong, and experts warn that the noisy drive-thru is a challenging environment for tech. And AI can take hours or even entire jobs away from fast food workers.
But restaurants are forging ahead, buoyed by the promise of higher sales and faster drive-thrus, whether we like it or not.
Some fast food enthusiasts may not have noticed the AI in their drive-thru lanes yet, but since around 2021, chains have been testing AI tools like Automated Voice Order, in which an AI rather than a person takes your order at the drive-thru, .
Those efforts have ramped up recently, with two announcements in May. CKE Restaurants (owner of Hardees and Carls Jr.) said it will roll out AI ordering capability more broadly after a successful pilot. Shortly thereafter, Wendys said it expanded its partnership with Google Cloud to include an AI ordering tool at the drive-thru. The chain is piloting the program in Columbus, Ohio this month.
Joel Angel Juarez/The Republic/USA Today Network
New AI technology at the drive-thru at a Carl’s Jr. location
Even the technology vendors see the challenges of a fast-food application: You might think that driving and talking in a drive-thru is an easy problem for AI, but it’s actually one of the hardest, Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud , told the Wall Street Journal in reference to the collaboration.
Speech recognition technology is really challenging, said Christina McAllister, a senior analyst at the research agency Forrester, which studies the impact of using AI in call centers.
Accents can mute the system, and it doesn’t work particularly well in noisy areas, he noted. Shouting an order in front of a car full of arguing kids or laughing friends can confuse the technology and, in turn, annoy the customer.
One of the things that frustrates customers the most is having to repeat themselves when they shouldn’t, he said. Those customers may end up unleashing their anger on the next employee they see.
In real-world situations, reactions to AI drive-thrus are still mixed.
Out of ten orders placed by customers at an Indiana White Castle that uses AI in its drive-thru, three people asked to speak to a human employee, either due to a mistake or a desire to simply speak to one person, the Wall Street Journal recently sued.
That said, AI inherently gets better as it collects more data. The experience may improve as instruments take more orders and learn to recognize voices better.
For businesses, a rough start appears to be worth the potential increase in sales.
One of the main benefits of using AI in the drive-thru is that it inexorably increases customers by leading them to spend more, according to Presto Automation, an AI company that works with restaurants and has partnered with CKE.
Presto Voice is upselling in every order, interim CEO Krishna Gupta said during an analyst call in May. It results in higher control dimensions.
Customers, he reasoned, want more speed of service. They want better customer satisfaction and they want bigger check sizes and they’re getting it all with Presto Voice.
It’s hard to believe that customers want to spend more, but restaurant managers sure do. On his website, Presto describes the perfect upsell as one that can be adapted to the weather, the time of day, the order itself, or customers’ order history.
Some analysts are equally bullish. We believe AI speech recognition and digital-only lanes could accelerate average help time by at least 20-30%, analysts wrote in a Bernstein Research note released in March. We expect AI to increase the competitive advantages of restaurants with digital culture.
Short-staffed restaurants might consider AI as a way to fill the gaps. While restaurants and bars have added jobs in recent months, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector fell by 349,000 in May compared to February 2020. Some restaurants are still struggling to staff.
Meanwhile, culinary trends have changed. The pandemic has prompted customers to drive en masse, and some have stuck to the habit, contributing to slower drive times.
At Wendys, the slowest spot in the entire drive-thru is that ordering station, CEO Todd Penegor said during an analyst call.
With AI, Wendys is trying to make our lives a little better for our employees and a lot better for our customers, Penegor added. Instead of taking orders, she said, workers can focus on preparing food and shipping it more quickly.
Adoption of new technologies could mean fewer jobs or part-time jobs for employees, said Yong Suk Lee, assistant professor of technology, economics and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, where he focuses on impact of artificial intelligence at work.
It’s an exercise in job reduction, he said, adding that in his view, it’s directly replacing workers.
Eventually, customers may end up missing out on a human touch even if it slows them down.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
At Chick-fil-A, workers sometimes walk the drive-thru line and take orders with a tablet.
In a survey last year Chick-fil-A, along with Carls Jr., took first place for service satisfaction. Yet Chick-fil-A failed to make the top five for order accuracy, according to the 2022 annual drive-thru survey conducted by Intouch Insight and QSR magazine that tracks drive-thru experiences at hundreds of retail locations. ten big chains.
How did the chicken chain manage to stay loved despite errors in orders? With the help of a system one speaks of face-to-face ordering, in which employees walk through the line of order-taking machines with a tablet.
For now, it remains to be seen what customers actually want.
There aren’t enough large-scale examples of voice AI in action, especially in this use case, to say people would prefer AI over an employee, McAllister said.
By the time these examples exist, AI in drive-thrus may already be the norm.
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