NRA Show
sonic-drive-in-artificial-intelligence.gif Nancy Luna

Sonic Drive-In demonstrates voice AI pilot at NRA show

This special edition of Tech Tracker looks at how operators are adopting new tech tools

This is part of NRN’s special coverage of the 2019 NRA Show, being held in Chicago, May 18-21. Visit NRN.com for the latest coverage from the show, plus follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Order and pay systems powered by artificial intelligence, personalized push notifications and enhanced self-serve gizmos and gadgets dominated the technology sections of the 100th annual National Restaurant Association show in Chicago.

The massive trade show featured more than 230 technology and entertainment companies offering a wide variety of services for restaurants looking for frictionless interactions with customers.

And, unlike the past, this year restaurants are less cautious about adopting technology.

“Operators are hungry for new tech,” said Allison Page, chief product officer and co-founder of reservation and guest management platform SevenRooms.

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Page was a panelist during a Monday panel session discussing the “The Future of Restaurants.”

She joined representatives from Domino’s Pizza and Miso Robotics to talk about technology trends. Most agreed that automation, frictionless technologies and personalized digital marketing are dominating the industry.

During the show, we spotted several of these tech services. Some are in beta test. Others are enhancements to existing technology. Here’s a look at what’s coming.

Sonic to beta test AI voice ordering

Mastercard and self-serve kiosk company Zivelo announced a partnership to test artificial intelligence at Sonic Drive-in restaurants. The pilot, debuting later this year, will feature AI-powered menu boards that use voice assistants to take a consumer’s order. The proprietary AI technology, developed by Mastercard, will personalize the ordering experience for the customer using the brand’s loyalty app. Using geo fencing in the app, loyalty members will be recognized once they pull into a parking space.

From there, the fun begins. The voice assistant is programmed to take orders and interact with the customer in a conversational way. Think of it like interacting with Amazon Alexa. 

For example, the voice assistant might suggest items based on weather, time of day, seasonality and location. The technology is similar to AI-powered menu boards McDonald’s is testing in drive-through lanes at 700 locations. The main difference: Sonic’s pilot features more automation with the voice assistant.

Drive-thru accounts for 70% of QSR transactions, yet the experience has remained more or less untouched by innovation,” Healey Cypher, CEO of Zivelo, said in a statement. “As customer expectation continues to move towards faster, personalized, and contextual experiences, we are excited to partner with Mastercard to bring this transformative solution to market and hopefully exceed those expectations.”

Dorch, vice president of integrated customer engagement at Sonic, said the company is looking at AI technology to create special experiences for customers.

“Voice AI promises to provide carefree conversational ordering that complements the overall experience,” Dorch said in a statement. “We anticipate AI integration will also provide opportunities to streamline repeat orders, personalize suggestions based on data, and offer rewards that are truly relevant.”

Digital pick-up shelves

Restaurant-turned-tech company Eatsa showcased its new, digitally enhanced meal pickup shelving stations at the show.

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The Spotlight Pickup System uses the same technology as Eatsa’s Cubby system but ditches the “locked” doors. Each shelf contains “spots” equipped with sensors that light up to indicate when a person’s order is ready for pick up.

Instead of labeling a bag with a person’s name, the shelf will digitally display a customer’s name. Last week, Eatsa announced its latest Spotlight customer: Rōti Modern Mediterranean, a Chicago-based fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant with 40 locations.

Roti is the third restaurant brand to adopt Spotlight. Other restaurants using Spotlight include Mac’D, a build-your-own macaroni and cheese concept in San Francisco and Evergreens, a salad, wrap and bowl concept in Seattle.

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Rōti CEO Carl Segal said Eatsa’s technology “will help us deliver a more convenient experience with shorter wait times and more seamless customization, enabling us to scale an engaging and differentiated customer experience.”

Cafes geared for Millennials

Cafes and bars are turning to Ripples to jazz up their java and beer game for Instagram-loving Millennials.

The Israeli-based company’s Ripple Maker uses 3D and ink jet printing to spruce up lattes and foamy beers with personal messages and images.

“We’re growing like crazy,” CEO and co-founder Yossi Meshulam.

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The Ripples booth, swarmed by attendees, was cranking out dozens of lattes with various images and pop-culture messages such as “May the Coffee be With You.”

One machine can produce a custom image on a beverage, including a cocktail, in 10 seconds.

Restaurants that use Ripples include The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges, BomboBar in Chicago, Bodega in Chicago, Cafe Lola in Las Vegas, Bruno's Taco Bar in Las Vegas and Johnny Rockets.

Meshulam said most cafes and bars add the Ripples device to enhance beverage sales by offering customized “printed” drinks for an upcharge.  However, he said one Los Angeles based café, Carrera Café, opened with a business model built around the Ripple Maker. The cafe’s Instagram page has nearly 45,000 followers, many of whom check on the brand’s creative coffee-infused messages.

“The entire store is catering to the personalized experience,” Meshulam said.

Beer wall taps growing by leaps and bounds

Chicago-based PourMyBeer is expanding its next-generation automated tap systems by leaps and bounds.

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The self-pour system is now in more than 210 locations around the world. U.S.-based sports bars and breweries are seeing the advantages of PourMyBeer’s automated tap system, which allows customers to act as their own bartender.

Customers are given an RFID card that is secured by their credit card. The RFID card allows the customer to sample various beers without committing to a whole pint. Each beer is priced per ounce. When a customer pours from a tap, a digital display shows the customer how much they’ve spent.

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The self-pouring taps can be found in select Buffalo Wild Wings and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit restaurants, as well as 10 Blast & Brew restaurants in California. Southern California-based fast-casual chain Pieology Pizzeria, which competes with Blaze Pizza and MOD Pizza, is also piloting the self-serve tap system.

Penny grows up

Bear Robotics returned to the show with a new version of Penny, a robotic “food runner” who made her debut last year at the NRA event.

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This year, Penny has “grown up” adding new abilities such as being able to deliver a tray full of drinks, something she couldn’t do last year. Now equipped with a three-tier swappable tray system, Penny can deliver beverages and food at the same time.   Servers can also use Penny to help bus tables.

The self-driving robot is engineered to easily navigate a busy dining room, and has improved battery power. The older version of Penny is currently being used at Amici's Pizza in Northern California.

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The company is showcasing the latest version at the show – and of course, taking pre-orders.

Stay tuned: Later this week, Tech Tracker will look at a swarm of new startups spotted at the show that could be game changers for independent and chain restaurants.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven

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