WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
AI is increasingly able to automate more cognitive work, and fast food workers are in the firing line.
First Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and ex CEO invested huge sums of money in the new fad of dark kitchens that only produce food for take out deliveries. Then Flippy the robot automated the fry cooks job, and then got fired for being too good, and eventually re-hired. And now, as a result of the global pandemic, which has made drive throughs more popular and increased the need for speed and efficiency like never before, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now taking the orders and helping streamline the customer experience.
McDonald’s, Burger King, and White Castle have been investing in emerging technology for a while now and recently, in a world first, KFC has even started selling chicken nuggets that were grown in a lab. But now, when you visit one of their restaurants you can expect to see smart menu boards, automated ordering and payment systems, and even pay with your face – all thanks to AI.
In 2019 the average McDonald’s drive-thru took six minutes and 18 seconds, but recently the company trimmed that to five minutes and 49 seconds in 2020, according to an annual report from market researcher SeeLevel HX. And with drive-thrus now account for a larger share of fast-food sales than ever before which, in top markets is 70% of sales at McDonald’s, the race is on for major chains to get those speeds even faster.
McDonald’s, of course, had no idea what was coming in 2020. But as restaurants across the US began shutting down last March due to Covid-19, the company was uniquely positioned to keep feeding customers while barely coming in contact with them: Of the roughly 14,000 McDonald’s locations across the US, nearly 95% include a drive-thru lane, which gives it more fast-food roadways than any of its competitors.
“Humans sometimes forget to greet people, they forget, they make mistakes, they don’t hear as well,” said Lucy Brady, McDonald’s Chief Digital customer engagement officer, as she discussed McDonald’s latest AI powered drive-thru voice assistants. “A machine can actually have a consistent greeting and remain calm under pressure.”
“We’re really looking systematically at that customer experience and thinking, ‘Where can technology make this better and easier and faster?'” Brady added.
“Technology is changing the [customer] experience, and I think it got thrust into hyper-overdrive by the pandemic,” said Lisa van Kesteren, CEO and founder of SeeLevel HX, which has been analyzing how fast-food restaurants respond to Covid-19.
The companies are also experimenting with technology that would read customers’ license plates to know what they may want to order based on past orders. Customers must opt-in to share their plate number through an app-based loyalty program.
“The thought is to make sure that it’s friendly. “They remember me, they know who I am,” said Jamie Richardson, White Castle’s vice president of marketing and public relations.
Then there’s PopPay, a feature that allows customers to pay via facial recognition foregoing the need to have a credit card or cash which some of the chains are trialling. This option is particularly popular with younger generations.
“Young people that have grown taking pictures of themselves all the time and posting them on the internet have no problem with facial recognition,” said CaliBurger Group CEO John Miller.
But, while these additions are making things faster and easier one has to wonder how long it will be before humans will be replaced altogether by technology at restaurants and drive throughs …