Will AI radically change the fast food industry?

“ Pizza Courier Online Cheese” by Mohamed Hassan (Pixabay)

Have you been to McDonald’s recently? Then you have probably noticed the customer experience is revolving more and more around technology such as touch-screens for orders. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Fast food companies are partnering with AI startups and implementing innovative solutions; with the goal to increase productivity and improve your dining experience.

Voice ordering

When Denny’s customers can order delivery from Amazon’s Alexa, and Dunkin’ fanatics can ask Google to arrange for a dozen donuts, boxed and ready when they arrive at the drive-through, it could be an indicator that fast food consumers are ready for a big AI push.

“ORDERING PIZZA HANDS FREE USING VOICE WITHOUT A PHONE! (ALEXA + DOMINOS SKILL)” by SimplyPops, YouTube.

Voice assistant-enabled ordering utilizing the Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home application programming interfaces (APIs) may not just be for customers ordering from the comfort of their home. Such could also be applied to physical retail environments. Picture this: you walk up to a self-order kiosk and instead of touching it, you order “conversationally” using your voice. Or in the drive-thru, a car with three customers places orders, talking with a voice-assistant-enabled order taker, and their orders get queued into the POS system just like any other order. Or if you accept phone orders but the store unfortunately experiences a busy time window, voice assistant technology could take a customer’s phone order and enter it in your POS as if the customer had ordered via any other ordering channel you offer. Furthermore, through machine-learning techniques, a voice assistant ordering system could“learn” and continually improve based on actual orders and spoken language.

Denver, Colorado-based Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard, implemented technology to take drive-through customer orders. The “burger bar bot” greets customers as they pull up, responds to voices to take an order, and sends them to collect their items from a human colleague further down the line. Presently, the bot is only taking breakfast orders in one restaurant yet the startup behind the technology, Valyant AI, hopes to expand quickly. It claims the tool will benefit employees by eliminating “the drudgery of taking 400 customer orders over the course of a shift”. Businesses automating the ordering process will enjoy “increased order sizes” and reduced fraud, it says. Good Times Burgers’ VP of Operations Scott Lefever stated that the artificial intelligence served as a “useful backup”; the restaurants are usually staffed with three workers for breakfast shifts. If the weather is bad or an employee doesn’t show up, the new tool “can truly save the morning,” he added.

When robotics meets food preparation

In March 2018, CaliBurgers’ Pasadena location started using Flippy, an artificial intelligence-driven robot. The robot was conceived by Miso Robotics, one of the first companies to bring AI and robotics to the kitchen. Flippy is capable of cooking burgers and placing them on buns. If such tests go well, it will be deployed in 50 restaurants by the end of 2019.

“Flippy the Burger Flipping Robot at CaliBurger Pasadena” by Rich DeMuro, YouTube.

Flippy hopes it can start a massive wave of fast food kitchen AI automation.

UAV delivery

Fast food delivered to your home by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drone, that’s a fairly straightforward concept… isn’t it?

In November 2016, A New Zealand couple became the first people in the world to have a pizza delivered by drone. Domino’s Pizza flew the Peri-Peri Chicken and Chicken and Cranberry pizzas to the backyard of Emma and Johnny Norman’s home in Whangaparaoa, about 20 miles north of Auckland. Domino’s claimed the “flying pizza pie” touched down Wednesday at 11:19 a.m. Auckland time after a flight of less than 5 minutes. In a press release, Domino’s Group CEO and Managing Director, Don Meij, said the successful delivery came only three months after Domino’s announced a partnership with the Flirtey drone delivery service.

“Domino’s First Company To Deliver Pizza By Drone” by CNBC, YouTube.

“We invested in this partnership, and technology, because we believe drone delivery will be an essential component of our pizza deliveries,” Mr Meij stated. “They can avoid traffic congestion and traffic lights, and safely reduce the delivery time and distance by travelling directly to customers’ homes. This is the future.” Domino’s said the first official delivery followed a number test-flights, including food temperature testing, and liaison with government authorities.

There is one major obstacle to the mass implementation of such service: the law. There are strict UAV regulations around the world, and some bylaws would need to be amended to ensure a smooth operation.

To answer the initial question in the article’s title: it may be too soon to say if AI can truly revolutionize fast food. That being said, the promise of superior customer experience and operations efficiency could prove very tempting to many stakeholders in the industry.