One tech arena Carroll-Boser considers a whiffed opportunity for restaurants is the connection of AI and IoT (the Internet of Things). The concept has a convoluted moniker for a straightforward definition: If you have a freezer connected to the internet, you have IoT in your restaurant. But that’s Generation 1 IoT, Carroll-Boser says. White Castle, for instance, has a lot of IoT built around food safety in its restaurants.
“What are we missing?” she asks. This, too, pulls lessons from manufacturing, where every machine is connected to the internet these days. Those operations do so, Carroll-Boser says, to prevent down time and the loss of revenue. “They can’t be down. We can’t be down, either,” she says of restaurants.
It about more than predictability. “It’s also about getting the information about what’s being used and not used,” Carroll-Boser continues. “For us, the lesson is going to be, we tell our employees how to run Castles. When we go to understand why we’re slow or when we have a problem or why we had a problem or when we’ve had bottlenecks, it’s been hard for us to know because we’re not connected.”
That, in a summary, is Carroll-Boser’s view of the “restaurant of the future.”
“Imagine the ‘connected restaurant,’” she says, “where every door, all equipment, every loop detector is connected.”
It’s a universe that’s going to take a lot of cabling to make happen from a logistical angle, Carroll-Boser adds.
Where does AI come in? In the case of the “connected restaurant,” operators are going to be flooded in data. It’s why everyone tends to be specialized in their own fields in IoT. “It’s kind of like when we started off in the beginning of restaurants,” Carroll-Boser says. “Where we collected our basic metrics and we’ve grown and we’ve grown. Buildings are growing. Everything in the building now is data and we have to have that data.”
Guinan provides an operational example. While in Orlando with COO Jeff Carper and CEO Lisa Ingram (where the world’s largest free-standing White Castle is), the group was chatting through whether or not it should open another line. How could it educate entry level crew managers running shifts, or GMs, on how or when to do so? “So, having this technology, to be able to say, you need to set another griddle based on the volume, based on the demand, you need to set another griddle, you need to come off that line and bring all your team members to one line,” he says. “That’s true technology that can take our management, our team members, to the next level.”
“People who don’t set the griddles when the griddles are there waiting to be set, those are more customers not being served,” Carroll-Boser adds. “So the idea of having it connected, AI solutions for all of our equipment, is very important.”
Plainly, it will help White Castle move past the “gut feel” era of running restaurants. The equipment watches a pattern, observes history, and then triggers real-time fixes. “That would be huge for us,” Guinan says.
When White Castle has a bottleneck, often it’s tied to speed of service. It doesn’t know if the capacity problem is due to people who haven’t set griddles or employees who have run out of space on them. “We know how many people are there, but we don’t know what they’re doing,” Carroll-Boser says.
Returning to the example of Julia’s AI drive-thru experience, Guinan says there was a broader lesson for White Castle. Customers were driving up, but they were put on hold, as shared earlier. Julia keeps taking orders every time a guest crosses the loop detector. “We solved the problem for them and for the company,” Guinan says. “And I suspect their sales are probably going to be higher and their customer experience is going to be better because Julia just keeps taking orders and we keep fulfilling orders. Imagine if we can have that on our griddles and our fryers and all our equipment to make that manager and GM’s job a little bit easier.”
Carroll-Boser elaborates on the connection with computer vision. In the past, the technology was mostly a neutral concept. They’re there, but employees look at the footage later. A human still must review and process. Computer vision in quick service surrounds one major, potential topic, she says.
Picture cameras in parking lots but looking at cars to let operators know how long a car has been there. Specifically, how many cars are behind the menuboard in the stack. The computer can learn and let restaurants know when things have gone too high. It would unlock a world of new metrics, Carroll-Boser says.
White Castle tracks speed of service at the drive-thru by when someone crosses the loop detector, gets their order taken, and then has their order bumped and handed out. “As a customer, you view your experience the minute you pull up in that line,” Guinan says. “So if you’re five cars back, that’s when your experience started. For us to have that knowledge to truly understand how long customers are waiting, I know it’ll help us make our decisions differently.”
Carroll-Boser expects restaurant design to follow these threads. Stores will be built for aesthetic reasons, as always, yet also with AI functionality in mind. Can they be created to hide cameras in plain sight? Can automation enter the back of the house to improve the oft-narrow, long-winded flow of a quick-service box?
Just take Flippy. One reason White Castle was deliberate in the rollout is a detail as granular as hoods. It’s had to change position (it takes 48 hours for Miso Robotics to walk in and get it live, a bit longer for White Castle’s construction crews to accommodate), low, high, left, or right. Another challenge is trying to chip away at the downtime required for each install. But for its “Castle of the Future,” Guinan says, the game-changer won’t necessarily be a flashy development; it will be flexibility.
Because the reality is, whatever changes White Castle makes today to embrace technology, might be outdated in three years when the next grand element arrives.
“We need flexibility within our restaurants that help us adapt to the future,” he says.
“Please build me a web of walls that has cabling capabilities everywhere,” Carroll-Boser adds. “Thinking about tunnels, web tunnels. That will allow the flexibility of your spaces to change. Not just the size, but also the walls and the infrastructure. Thinking of building a highway that’s coming outside with lots of infrastructure for the future.”
More widely, these innovations simply can’t be put on hold. Carroll-Boser says restaurants need to ahead of pressing issues instead of trying to outlast them. “We can’t wait and wait and hope that the next generation produces a line of children who are willing to come and work with us and grow up with us and our company,” she says. “Voice AI is coming.”
Sidebar: A quick cost view of automation
William Blair analyst, Sharon Zackfia recently published a whitepaper on automation. She outlined some details around Flippy and its potential ROI. She said Miso Robotics’ Flippy 2 and Flippy Lite are offered via a robot-as-a-service (RaaS) subscription model, in which one-time installation fees are followed by monthly subscription fees starting at $3,000 for Flippy 2. “Subscriptions include the equipment alongside routine maintenance, service calls, and live support,” she wrote. “Based on Miso’s calculations, the $3,000 subscription fee is offset by labor savings for restaurants that serve lunch and dinner, with meaningful leverage for restaurants that operate longer hours. Because the subscription cost is fixed [versus the inherently variable cost of labor], high-volume restaurants with high average hourly pay would be best positioned to recognize cost savings with Flippy, as we estimate breakeven at a relatively high six to seven hours of labor per day [assuming pay of $15 per hour].”
Flippy 2 is far from a White Castle phenomenon. It’s working with Jack in the Box, Wings and Rings, and Buffalo Wild Wings. “Chipotle is also testing a customized version of Flippy Lite, Chippy, to cook and season tortilla chips in a California restaurant, which if successful would bolster in-stocks of tortilla chips and reduce waste, while also im-proving the employee experience as frying tortillas in very hot oil is one of the least desired tasks at Chipotle. Still, installation of Chippy would likely necessitate remodels and permits, as it needs to be under a ventilation hood, and initial prototypes were too large to seamlessly fit in Chipotle’s restaurant workflows,” Zackfia wrote.