Restaurants are getting smarter, thanks to artificially-intelligent solutions being deployed in areas like the drive-thru and kitchens. Three tech-savvy restaurant leaders took the stage at MURTEC, Justin Ackerman, Director, Dunkin’ & Baskin Restaurant Technology for Inspire Brands, Dan Simpson, CEO of Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Phil Crawford, CTO of CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s). Each spoke boldly about how, where and why they’re testing the waters of AI, and sharing what it means for the industry.
Phil Crawford, CTO of CKE said it best, “Work smarter, not harder.” Each panelist agreed that AI should be used as much as possible to automate mundane or physically difficult tasks, so that staff can focus on the business of true hospitality, and gain real-world experience with cutting-edge technologies. The hope is that the restaurant industry can attract new talent, and retain and promote staff in meaningful ways, while the robots do the dirty work.
At a Dunkin’ store in Rhode Island, AI is being tested in the drive-thru with some pretty interesting accents, jokes Inspire’s Ackerman. He admits being fascinated by watching the AI learn and grow. “The machine has all the data and it knows exactly how to inject orders into the point-of-sale. When you have LTOs (limited time offers), it gets it right, but there’s a perceptible pause. It’s getting better as it goes. So far, so good. We’re excited about it.” He also revealed customers are engaging nicely with it, and that accuracy is very good.
Over in a Taziki’s kitchen, CEO Simpson says they were settling for 36 percent accuracy with curbside, pick-up and delivery times. “What has worked for a long time isn’t working anymore. Sales, labor, food ordering, general predictive analysis is just not getting us there.” After tapping machine learning (ML) and AI modeling, accuracy times jumped to 74 percent, thanks to a mix of expectation management, throttling across channels to optimize labor and scheduling and altering how the kitchen was staged. His goal? “We want to say yes to the guest as much as possible. How can we build a more flexible ecosystem to say yes to the guest?” He believes ML/AI can get them there.
In the near-term, Inspire’s Ackerman believes back-of-house (BOH) will yield the most bang for their buck when it comes to ML/AI investments. “We’re in the very early stages, looking at camera-based AI inventory. We can instantly tell customers what we’re out of for the day. When we automate that, it takes tasks away and frees up labor to better serve customers.” He believes voice and camera are the next frontiers. “We can show our franchisees labor savings. This technology can help redeploy labor and help you find people (recruiting). And we can bring in tech to help manage the back office.” Showing franchisees how technology can alleviate pain, like the ongoing labor shortage, is a real win. The brand is also using Flippy from Miso Robotics to automate Buffalo Wild Wings, part of the Inspire family of brands.
As far as customer experience, Taziki’s Simpson says, “We’re serving food to strangers. We don’t know their names or preferences. And we turned on every faucet, in came all the orders, but these are rigid, outdated business moves.” He said the systems they had were simply not smart enough. Everything was either on or there was a panic to turn it off, trying to keep up with volume. “We don’t want to be in a defensive posture. We want to support our staff and our guests.” In order to do that, he’s leaning into conversational AI text marketing to facilitate onboarding into loyalty programs, and working with Fresh Technology to enhance capacity management.
CKE’s Crawford agrees that AI allows a plethora of data to become actionable. He’s evaluating internet of things (IoT) solutions to create smarter kitchens, and partnering with manufacturers to ensure kitchen equipment delivers real-time metrics, which can affect waste, consumption and overall guest experience. “We’re doing things in the drive-thru, like automated drink dispensers, and looking at Flippy for mundane tasks. I believe leveraging robotics will be a true game-changer for the future; it will make our brands relevant again,” he said.
Taziki’s Simpson gives us the bottom line: “None of this is about displacing the workforce. If we’re successful, we’ll have enough to keep growing, position staff to do more high-value actions, and add more units.”