To be sure, the restaurant industry had been heading in the direction of increased automation and decreased labor before the pandemic. But the acceleration of restaurant technology that we have seen in the past 18 months – along with the increase in already-high employee turnover rates in the industry – has only elevated the need for restaurant operators to find solutions to labor challenges and the technology to help manage them. McDonald’s, for one, is tapping into artificial intelligence to manage restaurant labor and to-go service. After testing AI technology in its drive thrus in Chicago this summer (and getting about 85 percent of orders correct), the brand is now partnering with IBM to deploy AI-powered drive-thrus more broadly across the brand. Meanwhile, Starbucks has partnered with Amazon to launch a cashierless coffee shop in New York City, with additional outlets in the works. At a time when labor challenges are so elevated, major chains have become the early adopters of potential solutions to address them. At the same time, they will be managing the growing pains that accompany them, potentially making the transition to such technology more seamless for smaller brands in the future.
Before automation becomes more widespread in restaurant kitchens, look for it to enhance the ordering process. McDonald’s, for one, recently started testing artificial intelligence at 10 drive-thrus in Chicago, the Spoon reports. So far, the locations that have used it have reported an 85 percent accuracy rate on orders, with only one in five orders needing intervention. Ideally, these AI-powered systems can dovetail with a restaurant’s existing systems that track a guest’s past orders and suggest additional items, expediting the ordering process and freeing up staff for other tasks.
Drive-through restaurants have done well during the pandemic. Restaurant Dive reports that the share of trips on Waze to businesses with drive-through options jumped 25 percent between the beginning and end of 2020. It’s not difficult to see why: Drive-through restaurants’ use of smart, artificial intelligence-driven menus allows them to adjust options depending on the weather and to upsell customers with tempting options based on their past orders. Some are now adopting technology that enables guests to order directly from their car while in line, minimizing wait times. But these solutions are not necessarily just in the purview of drive-throughs. When you look at your business and how you get food to guests, where are your bottlenecks? Could you enable processes in your operation that would help you attract traffic from potential guests on a nearby highway, call up guests’ past orders and suggest additions they’re likely to crave, or speed up your wait times by allowing a person to order from you easily before they even arrive?
How well do you know the origins of the food you serve? Restaurants are able to collect a growing amount of information about the items they order – and that can enable much more powerful buying decisions and better management of food supply risks. Beyond fine-tuning inventory needs based on how your guests are ordering and helping you minimize waste, restaurant operators and other companies in the food supply chain are starting to use artificial intelligence to track and contain supply chain risks – say, tracking a recalled product and mining reams of data to identify trends from it or determine whether a specific supplier, distributor, or environmental problem is to blame. The company FourKites, which helps fine-tune shipment tracking for food suppliers ranging from US Foods to Tyson Foods, is one company bringing greater visibility to the supply chain.
Imagine if your kitchen technology could let you tap into the cooking expertise of chefs from around the world. Artificial intelligence is now powering intelligent restaurants like a new one in Naperville, Ill. by Nala Robotics. The company says its restaurant can make “dishes from any cuisine around the world, using authentic recipes from celebrated chefs,” and easily change menus and adapt dishes to any number of customer modifications. Whether restaurants choose to adopt AI in their kitchens or not, these robotic assistants are likely to change what restaurant competition looks like – and what consumers expect from restaurants.
Using artificial intelligence in your restaurant isn’t necessarily about investing in a robotic chef to flip burgers. Increasingly, it can help restaurants manage the nuances of customer data – something that can benefit any restaurant. A recent report from Nation’s Restaurant News described how the brand El Pollo Loco is using an A.I. product called Merlin to help boost the capabilities of its loyalty program. By using A.I. to sift through reams of customer data, Merlin can help the brand get more strategic with the offers they make to customers – for example, suggesting items past customers are likely to order, but also not offering deals or discounts where it’s not as necessary to retaining the customer’s loyalty.
As the restaurant industry has embraced technologies to smooth out the ordering process, artificial intelligence has grabbed headlines, most recently in the form of a text-to-order tool from the software company HungerRush that promises not only faster ordering without the help of a restaurant app but also the near-elimination of order errors. The use of AI for ordering is in its early stages – existing applications focus more on its use in dynamic menus, inventory integration and consumer marketing – but it may represent where ordering is headed and what areas of improvement operators should focus on. As you analyze the data you collect from sales, how does your speed of processing orders now compare with what it looked like last month and last year? Are there common order errors that occur? Can you identify ways to minimize the amount of time your staff must spend processing orders while still ensuring they come out fast and error-free?
Still using paper menus? In an environment where AI-powered digital menus can upsell, cross-sell and suggest dishes based on a customer’s past orders or even the weather, the paper menu is likely to become an increasing liability. According to McKinsey research, personalization can deliver five to eight times the return on investment on marketing and can increase sales by 10 percent or more. What’s more, having a data-driven understanding of what customers are ordering will help you better predict what they are likely to order in the future – and help you minimize waste and the expense it generates.
Despite recent news about bans on cash-free (i.e. app- or card-based) payment requirements at restaurants in New York and other states, there is plenty of momentum pushing restaurants toward even more seamless, tech-based payment systems. Software companies like PopID, for example, are providing artificial intelligence-enabled facial-recognition platforms that can not only process payment rapidly but also recognize a customer – then quickly pull up previous orders, which are often repeated at quick-service restaurants. Payments Journal reports that the result at CaliBurger, a brand using the technology, has been shorter lines and compressed ordering times.
As labor costs escalate, how are you ensuring you have the right number of employees scheduled at the right times? More brands are adopting artificial intelligence-based programs to help with scheduling. Domino’s, for one, has been testing an AI algorithm to help ensure they are using the most efficient number of staff hours in their stores, Restaurant Dive reports. As major cities enact predictive scheduling laws designed to ensure a fair work week for employees – Widget Brain reports that New York, San Francisco and Seattle are among them – finding ways to use AI to forecast labor demand, and then build and fill schedules, can help operators not only maximize labor expenditures but also comply with the law.