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Restaurants dip into AI to streamline food prep and ordering

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

The technology has yet to succeed in critical mass at major chains but has the potential to automate more tasks and provides restaurant staff the chance to have a more meaningful experience with guests.

Analysts say a key profit is the potential to ease workforce challenges in an ongoing tight hiring market. The National Restaurant Association predicts the industry will add 500,000 jobs by the top of 2023, but notes there’s currently only one job seeker for each two open positions.

What’s more, TD Cowen estimates voice-enabled AI can drive sales as much as 15% through suggestive selling in addition to speed up service times by 10 seconds.

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

“Some were trying it, others we’re contemplating it, most were piloting it,” he said of third-party apps for delivery services. “I believe there’s a transparent analogue to today where it is very similar and as we proceed to see further adoption of this, you will notice a domino effect here.”

But there are still hurdles to broad adoption, in accordance with Charles. Lots of these large restaurant chains must get franchisees on board. Language barriers and menu nuances can add complexity to the ordering process that AI may not have the opportunity to navigate.

Meanwhile, the wave of pilot programs has already begun.

Last month, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s parent company CKE announced it was aiming to launch AI integrations nationwide via partnerships with Presto and OpenCity AI.

Yum! Brands in recent times has been a pacesetter in leveraging AI to boost operations, including its 2021 acquisition of Dragontail aimed toward streamlining food prep and delivery. The tech, which automates kitchen flow, driver dispatch and customer order tracking, is utilized in 1,000 Pizza Hut locations within the U.S., and nearly 3,000 more globally. The corporate also relies on AI for its really helpful ordering module that informs managers of how much product to order weekly.

McDonald’s, for its part, sold McD Tech Labs to IBM in 2021, entering a strategic partnership to assist bring AI technology to drive-thru lanes. McD Tech Labs, which was formerly often called Apprente before McDonald’s acquired it, used AI to know drive-thru orders. Thus far, McDonald’s has tested the technology at certain locations.

Del Taco can also be using voice-activated AI for orders at its drive-thru, as is Wingstop for orders placed by phone.

Panera Bread has likewise invested within the technology in each front- and back-of-house operations. It’s working with OpenCity AI on drive-thru voice ordering and with Miso Robotics to sure up coffee quality and temperature control to spice up product consistency.

For Panera, it’s a matter of, “How will we redeploy our people to higher value, higher quality guest experiences,” said Chief Digital Officer George Hanson. “Whether or not they’re spending more time on the food preparation and the standard control, or in person interaction,” Hanson told CNBC in an interview.

“It is perhaps just swinging around into the dining room and asking them how their meal is or in the event that they can bus their table — just having those warm interactions. We view that as higher value.”

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

Courtesy: Chipotle

Chipotle, a tech leader within the restaurant space, has also partnered with Miso Robotics, introducing Chippy, its robotic chipmaker, which is currently installed and cooking chips in a restaurant location in Fountain Valley, California. Using AI, Chippy has been trained to recreate the brand’s exact chip recipe with salt and fresh lime juice. The following iteration of Chippy will determine the quantity of chips that must be made, too.

The corporate has also implemented AI on its app to deploy suggestive ordering and uses camera systems at its Cultivate Center test kitchen to supply real-time data on the quantity of product needed based on customer volume to be more predictive and fewer reactive.

Chief Customer and Technology Officer Curt Garner told CNBC the hope is for AI and robotics to amplify and improve human experiences at the corporate’s restaurants.

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

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