AI doesn’t take one form but many, existing as a labyrinthine set of technologies that can be utilized in nearly any point of restaurant operations. “AI is essentially an umbrella term. There are very specific components under the surface that are very different from each other, but all of those things will find themselves integrated into every part of operations in the future,” says Rob Carpenter, CEO of Valyant AI, a conversational AI company that has been working with chains such as Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard to automate customer orders.
Valyant’s technology functions similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, but for brands rather than consumers. The platform, Holly, is able to take orders from guests, gathering customer information during the ordering process and then offering upsells that can bulk up profits.
Good Times began using the platform to take breakfast orders in January 2019, eventually expanding Holly to take lunch and dinner orders, too. In July, the brand reported an average 6 percent increase in spend per order through Holly, as well as an average attempted upsell success rate of 40 percent. The platform was also reported to cut the average customer wait time by 10–25 percent.
“One of the most critical value propositions is that our platform helps decrease wait times—you run the drive thru faster,” Carpenter says. “This also automates a task that most employees don’t want to do. It also helps from an upsell perspective; AI never gets bored or discouraged, and even if two customers in a row say no, it will continue to upsell everything.”
Domino’s was an early adopter of conversational AI technology. Thanks to DOM, customers are able to order online, in-app, or via Amazon Alexa or similar devices with a simple voice command. The aforementioned 40-unit in-store test of using DOM for phone orders could lead to system-wide adoption of this in the future; meaning that DOM would take care of in-store orders, too, and free up team members to attend to the pizza make lines and interact face-to-face with customers who come in to place or pick up orders.
The chain isn’t limiting AI to ordering. Last year, the Points for Pies promotion allowed customers to submit a photo of any pizza from any brand and receive Domino’s rewards points. AI identified pizzas in the photos, quickly selecting the customers eligible for the rewards. Domino’s chief digital officer Dennis Maloney says the company plans to continue exploring the tech.
“This is definitely something that’s part of our business—it’s not new for us, it’s established to the point that we’re building specific teams that are dedicated to understanding how to use this technology,” he says.
And then, of course, there’s AI that resides in the kitchen. Instead of streamlining ordering and other customer interactions, this stable of AI tech is aimed at increasing product consistency, slimming down makeline and prep labor, and automating other back-of-house operations.
Picnic is one of these platforms. The tech assembles pizza right now, but Picnic CEO Clayton Wood says the future will include other foods, too. The process is simple: Pre-made and pre-stretched dough blanks are placed on the machine’s conveyer belt, where they are topped with the perfect amount of sauce, cheese, and toppings. No oven is involved in the process, and the pizzas come out ready to be cooked. AI takes the place of a trained pizza prep employee, identifying the correct portion and distribution of the ingredients.
Wood says future iterations would follow a similar process for foods like burgers and tacos, topping patties with mustard or ketchup or tortillas with refried beans. The system is modular, meaning that each ingredient (i.e. pizza sauce or cheese) has its own individual operation and distribution mechanism that could easily be dedicated to a different ingredient.
“We do the assembly, which is the part of the prep process that requires training. We started with pizza restaurants because there’s a labor problem there—rush hour at a pizza restaurant requires a lot of employees, and it is a particularly labor-intensive food,” Wood says.