How Restaurants Like Panera and Chipotle Are Leveraging AI to Simplify Food Prep and Ordering

From drive-thru operations to back-of-house operations to predictive ordering for consumers, restaurant brands are starting to pilot AI to streamline food service.

The technology has yet to reach critical mass in major chains, but it has the potential to automate more tasks and give restaurant workers the opportunity to have a more meaningful guest experience.

Analysts say a key benefit is the potential to ease workforce challenges in a market where hiring is tight. The National Restaurant Association predicts the industry will add 500,000 jobs by the end of 2023, but notes that there is currently only one job seeker for every two open positions.

Additionally, TD Cowen estimates that voice-enabled AI can increase sales by up to 15% through suggestive sales and speed up service time by 10 seconds.

The industry shift is reminiscent of the emergence of third-party delivery services five years ago, before it was ubiquitous at nearly every major restaurant operator, according to Andrew Charles, managing director of consumers and restaurants at TD Cowen.

“Some were trying it, some we’re contemplating it, most were piloting it,” he said of third-party apps for delivery services. “I think there’s a clear analog to today where it’s very similar and as we continue to see further adoption of that, you’re going to see a domino effect here.”

But there are still hurdles to broad adoption, according to Charles. Many of these large restaurant chains have to engage franchisees. Language barriers and menu nuances can add complexity to the ordering process that AI may not be able to navigate.

Meanwhile, the wave of pilot programs has already begun.

Last month, CKE, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, announced it plans to roll out AI integrations nationwide through partnerships with Presto and OpenCity AI.

Yum! Brands have been leaders in leveraging AI to improve operations in recent years, including the 2021 acquisition of Dragontail aimed at streamlining food preparation and delivery. The technology, which automates kitchen flow, dispatching drivers and tracking customer orders, is used in 1,000 Pizza Hut locations in the United States and nearly 3,000 more globally. The company also relies on artificial intelligence for its recommended order form that informs managers about how much product to order weekly.

McDonald’s, for its part, sold McD Tech Labs to IBM in 2021, entering into a strategic partnership to help bring AI technology to the drive-thru lanes. McD Tech Labs, formerly known as Apprente before McDonald’s acquired it, has been using AI to understand drive-thru orders. So far, McDonald’s has been testing the technology in select locations.

Del Taco also uses voice-activated AI for orders at its drive-thru, as does Wingstop for orders placed over the phone.

Similarly, Panera Bread has invested in technology in both its front-of-house and back-of-house operations. It is working with OpenCity AI on drive-thru voice ordering and with Miso Robotics to ensure coffee quality and temperature control to increase product consistency.

For Panera, it’s a question of “How to redeploy our people toward higher value, higher quality guest experiences,” said Chief Digital Officer George Hanson. “Whether they spend more time preparing food and quality control or interacting in person,” Hanson told CNBC in an interview.

“It might just be walking into the dining room and asking them how their meal is or if they can carry their table just with those warm interactions. We see that as a higher value.”

Chipotle is testing an autonomous kitchen assistant, Chippy, which offers a robotic solution for making chips in restaurants.

Courtesy: Chipotle

Chipotle, the technology leader in the restaurant space, has also partnered with Miso Robotics, introducing Chippy, his robotic chip maker, which is currently set up cooking chips at a restaurant in Fountain Valley, California. Using AI, Chippy was trained to recreate the exact recipe of the brand’s potato chips with salt and fresh lime juice. The next iteration of Chippy will also dictate how many chips need to be made.

The company has also implemented AI on its app to distribute suggestive orders, and is using camera systems in its Cultivate Center test kitchen to provide real-time data on how much product is needed based on customer volume to be more predictive and less reactive.

Curt Garner, chief customer and technology officer, told CNBC that the hope is that artificial intelligence and robotics amplify and enhance human experiences at the company’s restaurants.

“[It’s] help crew members, managers, team adjust to their current environment as a tool, but not take them out of the equation of serving our guests and running the vessel,” he said.

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