Panera is testing AI voice ordering at two restaurants, the latest in a growing number of brands innovating the drive-thru channel.
The experimentation is happening at two locations in the Rochester, New York, market. Panera is partnering with OpenCity's proprietary AI assistant, named "Tori." Customers pull up to the drive-thru as usual, place their order with Tori, and pay at the window. Meanwhile, employees are on standby in case troubleshooting becomes necessary.
“At Panera, improving our guest experience is always our priority and we are using this innovative technology to help enable a faster, more accurate order for each of our drive-thru guests,” Debbie Roberts, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “The potential of AI drive-thru technology is incredibly exciting for us—we are eager to evaluate the performance of these tests and the possibility of expanding this technology in additional bakery-cafes.”
Earlier this year, OpenCity formed a partnership with Popeyes franchisee High Noon Restaurant Group. David Damato, CEO of the franchise company, said in April that Tori's ability exceeded his expectations and that it's "one of the most innovative technologies I've ever seen." At a single-restaurant test in Louisiana, the voice-ordering technology realized 20 percent faster speed of service, 150 percent more drinks sold, and 99.9 percent ordering accuracy.
At the start of COVID, customers swarmed the drive-thru, and the ordering channel is still benefiting from tailwinds. From February 2020 to 2022, drive-thru orders grew 20 percent, according to The NPD Group. In the year ending February, non-digital drive-thru orders increased 20 percent.
In response, several fast casuals are beginning to grow their drive-thru presence—traditional and digital—including Shake Shack, Chipotle, Quiznos, and Sweetgreen. The movement is occurring on the full-service side as well with the likes of Applebee's and Smokey Bones. Panera is ahead of the curve compared to its fast-casual peers, with 45 percent of its more 2,000 units having drive-thru.
Other notable brands testing AI voice ordering include McDonald's, which conducted a 24-store test in Illinois. BTIG analyst Peter Saleh found that accuracy was in the low 80 percent range, well below the expected 95 percent-plus goal. In 2019, the burger brand acquired Apprente, a leader in voice-based conversational technology. Two years later, McDonald's sold it to IBM, in hopes the company would use its expertise to ignite development and scale of automated order-taking technology.
Checkers revealed in early 2022 that it was rolling out AI voice-ordering solution Presto to roughly 250 company-owned restaurants. The technology, which recognizes accents and colloquialisms, has order accuracy of 98 percent.
For Panera, it's not the chain's first venture into automation. In April, the brand announced it was testing Miso Robotic's CookRight Coffee system, which monitors volume, temperature, and time data.