QSR recently reported on the burgeoning trend of voice activated ordering in foodservice. Facial recognition ordering is coming, too. In the U.S., one new unit of UFood Grill in Owings Mills, Maryland, and five locations for Chicago-based chain Wow Bao are using a system designed by Nextep Systems. And a single KFC store in Beijing, China, has implemented similar technology coordinated with Chinese search engine giant Baidu.
Facial ordering is literally a snap, as UFood's CEO Sal Rincione says. When using one of their kiosks, customers are asked if they would like to save their order, and if so, by phone number or by facial recognition. If it's the latter, "the POS will take a picture of you and save it into the system," he says. "Next time you come to the store it will recognize you and ask if you'd like your last order or to look at your last order. If you say yes, you swipe your card, and you're done. That transaction takes about four seconds."
Rincione says around two-thirds of UFood customers are using the kiosks, and they love it. He also says the adaptation has become multigenerational.
"I did a lot of focus groups before we built the [new] store trying to get feedback on what the customer wants," Rincione says. "And I really thought the millennials would be the only ones who would want to use the kiosks, but it's Baby Boomers, post-Boomers, millennials, Generation Z, and X. They're all using it."
Forest Liu, director of public affairs for Yum China, found guests at the KFC Original+in Beijing are open to their new system. "The initial response from customers is encouraging," Liu says. "We are seeing our consumers excitedly sharing their experience through social media posts and videos on Chinese social media platforms."
UFood's CEO lauds the Nextep system for its simplicity and ease of use. "It builds a great database, but especially a full report about what people are frequently purchasing through the kiosks," Rincione says.
Tommy Woycik, president of Nextep Systems, says his company talked about a facial recognition ordering system a few years ago, but the concept seemed "a little creepy" to some. Now that people love Snapchat and facial recognition is used in Facebook tagging, however, the public perception has shifted.
"I think people have become pretty comfortable with it, so about three years ago we did a demo piece in the lab where you could walk up to it and touch the screen, and it would look at your face and say, ‘Here are your previous orders,’" Woycik says. "We had it working in the lab [then], but there were some significant expenses [in terms of] licensing the facial recognition engine. It's got to be accurate. There was a significant investment for us to license an FR engine and incorporate it into our production product, not just a lab piece. We've only been live with it now for three or four months."
UFood has been using Nextep facial recognition for a month. Wow Bao for approximately two months. He adds that Pennsylvania-based, healthy fast food chain Bryn and Dane's is soon going to implement it as well in their upcoming March location.
Woycik says that with the Nextep System, bundled at no extra charge to clients within their Foundation7 product suite, is switched to an opt-in setting. In other words, customers are given the option to look up previous orders by phone number, credit card, or through facial recognition.
"If you use facial recognition, then it turns on the camera, takes a picture of you, and makes a round trip to the cloud to look at any instances of that restaurant concept and any other orders that you've made there," Woycik says. "People really like it at Wow Bao."
He says that there are installation considerations—bright lighting behind guests can be tricky, and the camera has to be angled right to accommodate for a range of heights—but things have been going smoothly. Since the system does not cache facial geometry on a local server but matches data from their cloud-based server, Woycik is impressed at how fast it works. "Right now it takes about one second, which is fantastic," he says.
Woycik says facial recognition will become very popular at fast casual venues, especially with guests who have very particular and customized tastes. It will save them time ordering. Nextep's next step will be to incorporate their facial recognition technology into their touchscreen drive through systems.
Their facial recognition system will also be good for order recommendations. "Since we store previous orders and associate them with a particular guest, we can start drawing conclusions and recommend certain items," Woycik says. "If we can glean that they are working off a reduced calorie menu or gluten-free menu, we can actually order things that are appropriate or highlight certain things that people are interested in."