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This month, Wendy’s and CKE Restaurants announced plans to implement test pilots of AI in the drive-thru lane, joining a list that includes White Castle, Del Taco, Panera, McDonald’s, and Sonic. 

Tech Tracker: AI has become the biggest tech trend in QSR

Wendy’s and CKE become the quick-service restaurants to add AI to the drive-thru lane; Yelp adds AI discovery features, and more

Conversational AI in the drive-thru lane is nothing new — NRN has been covering the rise of this trending tech phenomenon since 2019, when companies first begin adapting AI voice assistants in earnest —  but the trend has now reached a fever pitch, and more and more limited-service chains are replacing humans with AI drive-thru workers. This is only the beginning: as AI becomes more ubiquitous in the restaurant industry, there will be a major shift in the service model and customer experience.

This month, Wendy’s and CKE Restaurants announced plans to implement test pilots of AI in the drive-thru lane, joining a list that includes White Castle, Del Taco, Panera, McDonald’s, and Sonic. 

Tech Tracker rounds up what’s happening in the technology sector of the restaurant industry, including news from restaurants, vendors, digital platforms, and third-party delivery companies. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know and why:

Wendy’s and CKE Restaurants join the AI drive-thru club

This month, both Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. parent company, CKE Restaurants, announced investments in drive-thru AI technology that will be tested out first on a pilot basis. As previously reported on NRN, Wendy’s is partnering with Google Cloud to launch artificial intelligence at a drive-thru restaurant in June, using generative AI and large language models technology to improve the drive-thru experience. 

The technology will allow AI to not only take orders in the drive-thru lane (the preferred mode of service for Wendy’s customers), but also to understand made-to-order requests and generate responses on the spot to specific questions. Generative AI technology is the latest step in drive-thru technology, which creates a less frustrating customer ordering experience, in which AI can better understand slang, natural conversational cadence, and frequently asked questions.  

Like most restaurants, Wendy’s is implementing this technology pilot test to create a more frictionless ordering experience, lighten staff workloads, and easily integrate with a restaurant hardware and POS system.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s parent company, CKE Restaurants, meanwhile, announced an expansion of the drive-thru AI pilot program in partnership with Presto Automation, Open City and Valyant AI.

Presto Voice has already been added to multiple CKE restaurants nationally, and now will be increasing that investment after a successful pilot program and offering it to the company’s franchisee base around the country.

“The pilot program yielded positive outcomes, with deployed stores experiencing a significant rise in revenue due to the upsell capability,” Phil Crawford, chief technology officer at CKE Restaurants said in a statement.

Many companies tout automated upselling as a unique advantage to AI in the drive-thru lane, when AI is capable of suggesting items on the spot to customers based on what they have in their shopping cart, as well as popular add-on items geographically and based on time of day.

Although it seems like a new quick-service chain is announcing AI investment every day, it may be years before every drive-thru lane replaces a friendly human voice with an automated experience. But even the test drive stage of drive-thru AI is transforming the way we think of customer experience: it’s everywhere, it’s convenient, and it’s faster and simpler than it ever was before.

Resy founder launches NFT loyalty club for restaurants

Ben Leventhal, cofounder of Eater and cofounder/former CEO of Resy, left his role at the fine dining reservations giant in Dec. 2020 to create restaurant technology company, Blackbird Labs. Blackbird’s latest project is $Fly: an NFT loyalty program designed with restaurants in mind. According to the company’s newsletter, $Fly is “a fungible token to power the restaurant economy of the future.” Blackbird aims to create a network of restaurants that will share and benefit from an umbrella digital loyalty program.

Currently in beta mode, the blockchain-based loyalty program is available at five New York City restaurants, though that number will be expanding to 50 when Blackbird officially launches in June. Each restaurant will have its own individual rewards program under the blackbird umbrella.

A Blackbird card is a digital card available through any and all of these participating restaurants. Guests then “check in” by scanning the NFC chip at the front of every participating restaurant (the same technology you use when you “tap” your phone to check out at a retail store), and then with each subsequent visit, guests unlock new rewards, ranging from free food and discounts to VIP events and rare restaurant reservations.  

Sound familiar? Tech Tracker has covered the rise of NFT-based loyalty programs, ranging from Starbucks to WowBao, but this would be the first time a company would allow customers to keep all of their rewards for various restaurants in one digital location. 

Uber Eats partners with Amazon to launch delivery tracking

Uber Eats announced earlier this month a partnership with Amazon Echo to allow delivery customers to track the status of their food deliveries using Alexa. Customers can set how often they want to receive notifications at specific points in the delivery completion process, from a restaurant receiving an order to a courier on the way.  

This feature is now available on all Alexa-enabled devices, and customers can get started by turning on the  "Track with Alexa" button in the Uber Eats app.

"Simple ambient experiences let customers be more present with family and friends—they don't need to be distracted by checking for delivery updates on their mobile apps," Mark Yoshitake, general manager and director of Alexa Skills said in a statement. "Now, customers can settle in for their favorite movie and trust Alexa to let them know when their driver is approaching with their order or update them if there is a material change to the estimated delivery time.”

This is just the latest step Amazon has taken to integrate the company within the restaurant industry. In March, Panera announced a partnership with contactless palm payment technology, Amazon One, and customers can also order Panera via their Alexa-enabled devices.

Deliverect Acquires ChatFood

Global software and online ordering integration company Deliverect announced earlier this month the acquisition of omnichannel ordering and marketing platform ChatFood. Together, both companies will expand the reach of their digital ordering platform to 43,000 restaurants in 42 markets around the world.

"We are thrilled to welcome ChatFood to the Deliverect team," said Zhong Xu, CEO and cofounder of Deliverect said in a statement. "With ChatFood, we now provide a 360-degree solution inspired by the challenges our customers face, supporting them both with in-restaurant dining and online food delivery. This milestone is significant for our company, because each day we strive to simplify the lives of restaurant owners and help them thrive in the digital age."

Deliverect customers will now be able to add new solutions like social media ordering and digital order and pay capabilities through custom QR codes.

In other news….

  • Toast adds yet another feature with the addition of Toast Tables—a reservation and waitlist management solution that rivals OpenTable. Key features include real-time table availability updates and personalized guest profiles.
  • Tabit announces OpenTable partnership: a closed-loop integration that streamlines front of house operations. Key features include personalized guest identification (is this a new customer or a regular?) and real-time guest information (which course is table #3 on?) so hosts can deliver more accurate wait times.
  • Tattle integrates with Square—Tattle’s automated post-meal survey emails or texts messages to customers are now integrated with Square’s POS system.
  • Yelp for Restaurants gets new features including integration with Toast to add POS insights and data integration to Yelp’s suite of capabilities, and reserve with Google, to make guest reservations easier than before through Google search or Google Maps.

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

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