You might be unsurprised to hear that the most prominent way AI has broken into the fast food industry is in the drive-thru lane. And while the relatively new technology is not always up to this task, it will soon become commonplace at fast food restaurants everywhere. It’s not just the speaker box that’s gotten a tech upgrade, either—AI is permeating virtually every aspect of fast food operations.
Most recently, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s announced a partnership with Presto Automation to roll out AI-powered voice recognition solutions to restaurants nationwide.
The parent company to the two chains, CKE Restaurants, is working not only with Presto Automation, but also with OpenCity and Valyant AI. Each company has its own proprietary technology that will be used in the ordering process at restaurants.
As previously mentioned, this is not AI tech’s first entry into the drive-thru lane, though it may be the most successful instance so far. Since 2021, McDonald’s has been experimenting with the use of AI technology in its drive-thru. However, it has been made evident that the technology requires some tinkering. Despite McDonald’s CEO said in 2021 that the AI-backed ordering system had an accuracy rate of 85%, plenty of TikTok users posted videos detailing the bots’ blunders with their orders.
For example, one user alleged that after placing an order for a hash brown, a sweet tea, and a Coke, the AI mistakenly added a Diet Coke to the order. When the TikToker told the AI to take the Diet Coke off the order, it did—but then added nine sweet teas instead.
AI has also infiltrated the fast food space outside of drive-thrus. Most recently, Shake Shack added dairy-free, plant-based desserts to its menu, items that were developed by an AI algorithm named Giuseppe. In this case, the AI broke down and analyzed animal-based dairy on the molecular level to find plant-based molecules that would best mimic the characteristics that make the food likable. The result: a non-dairy chocolate shake and a non-dairy chocolate frozen custard.
Subway has found a way to use AI to assist in its expansion of “non-traditional” locations. In September 2022, Subway installed its first smart fridge at the University of California San Diego. The fridges are stocked daily by the nearest brick-and-mortar Subway location and use “artificial intelligence and natural language processing” to allow customers to speak to the machine and ask about what’s inside the fridge.
And prior to Subway’s smart vending machines, Marco’s Pizza was also experimenting with AI technology to increase order efficiency. The Ohio-based chain announced in March 2022 that it would be launching a new voice-to-text ordering system in 50 of its stores as part of a pilot program.
As explained by QSR Magazine, the speech-enabled ordering system uses “conversational artificial intelligence (AI) which yielded 100 percent order accuracy in initial beta testing as well as increased employee and customer satisfaction.” The AI technology simulates “a human-like conversation” and has the ability to speak and understand multiple languages, dialects, and accents.
My advice to any fast food chains looking to grab hold of more customers and keep existing ones happy is usually to “give the people what they want.” Longtime fans begging for the return of an old menu item? Give it to them. A community on social media is saying they’d love to see a collaboration between a specific fast food restaurant and a celebrity? Make it happen. But no one is asking for a side of AI technology with their fries, and until it can add to the customer experience rather than detracting from it, companies should be judicious about how and when they deploy it.