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Opinion: Here’s Why I Haven’t Given up on AI in Drive-Thrus

person holding black smartphone in car

McDonald’s recently ended its drive-thru test with IBM, and I can’t say I’m shocked. Lately, QSRs are falling for marketing and sales shenanigans from a few tech companies that promised the world as far as AI technology, like “All you have to do is plug it in and great things will happen – your tickets will go up, your accuracy will go up.”

But when errors occur with automated ordering technology and you’re trying to solve those issues with your restaurant staff, that’s a dangerous cocktail.

Here’s the thing: no technology ever works as advertised. Certainly not right out of the gate. That goes for POS systems, it goes for online ordering, etcetera. Technological advancements rarely work like the brochure promises.

The idea of using AI in the drive-thru makes all the sense in the world; you remove an employee from the drive-thru and it helps with labor costs. But look at how many AI companies have gone under recently.

The problem with using AI in the drive-thru process is the technology (at least for now) makes mistakes. It’s just not accurate enough. For example, it may not recognize peoples’ accents. As a result, the current version of the technology isn’t solving speed for labor, and it’s making restaurants lose check average. QSRs aren’t removing any employees from the drive-thru process because, right now, they need an employee to fix and troubleshoot automated order-taking.

But technology always has a version 2, a version 3, and so on. The notion of using AI in drive-thrus is still a good idea – it just doesn’t work as advertised yet. At some point, machine learning will master tasks like recognizing customers’ eyes in the drive-thru and recalling their order history.

The Perfect Drive-Thru Process in 2024

A better way of setting up your drive-thru is this: don’t think of it as a drive-thru, think of it as a drive-up.

Use at least one of your drive-thru lanes as a pickup lane. Think of Chipotle’s modernized “Chipotlanes” – customers download your app, plug in their order, and then the restaurant texts them when the order is ready. That’s a far more efficient process than the traditional fast-food drive-thru. The customer gets exactly what they want, they don’t have to wait in a long line, and they’ve already paid for their order online.

Using a drive-thru lane as a pickup lane is perfect for repeat customers – and those are the most profitable customers.

Restaurants can have a drive-up process even if they don’t have a traditional drive-thru setup. Instead, they could employ drive-up parking stalls. They could tell customers, “Drive up, then when you’ve texted that your order is ready, go to one of the drive-up stalls, text us what number stall you’re in, and we’ll run your food out.”

That said, I’m certainly not ready to give up on using AI in drive-thrus. If you think about it, whatever the problem is with automated ordering technology, that issue just ends up becoming a ticket for the IT team or R&D department to fix on the next iteration of the software. The tech companies will solve those issues eventually.

Automated ordering technology might not ever get mastered, but it’ll consistently improve over time. I think it’ll probably be two or three years before AI in drive-thrus largely works as advertised.

Editor’s note: Dan Rowe is the CEO of Fransmart, a leader in franchise development. Under Rowe’s leadership, Fransmart developed an extensive portfolio of franchise brands, including Five Guys Burgers & Fries, QDOBA Mexican Grill, and The Halal Guys.

Rowe is Co-Managing Partner at The Kitchen Fund and FranInvest, which have invested in Sweetgreen, Cava, and Inday to name just a few. He’s an active board member of YPO and the National Restaurant Association.

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