Is Your Restaurant AI the Real Deal? Here Are Five Questions to Ask Vendors

The restaurant industry is undergoing a technology renaissance. Everywhere you care to look, AI and automation can be found taking on critical roles and supporting restaurants, bars, cafes, and coffee shops still battling against labor shortages and rising inflation. 

Robots are helping with food prep and even serving dine-in customers. Data-driven analytics tools are allowing restaurants to optimize pricing and personalize menu options. ChatGPT-style technology is writing food descriptions and generating meal imagery. Voice AI is taking orders over the phone, at the drive thru, and at kiosks to help reduce customer wait times and drive more sales. 

It’s unsurprising that even restaurant executives that have been historically cautious of fleeting tech trends are now looking into AI more seriously. But – as with any burgeoning movement – AI also gets served up with a large side of hype. It can be difficult to navigate the fast-growing field of restaurant tech in a way that clearly separates the best from the bogus. Here’s advice on what to ask during your next conversation with an AI vendor. 

1. Do you own your own tech stack? 

In the world of technology and data, it’s best to know exactly who you’re getting into bed with before you take the plunge. Some restaurant AI sales people may not be forthcoming about only actually owning the “visible” part of their solution, with the rest running on top of different systems run by third parties. 

It’s important to know who owns different layers of the tech stack (or components of the platform) so you know who else you’re in business with – and who owns the data. 

In an ideal world, the vendor you’re dealing with owns the full tech stack, and as a restaurant you have a complete line-of-sight into how any data is gathered and secured – as well as access to it for business intelligence. In a world where consumer trust and privacy is paramount, access to this information can also help eliminate certain risks. 

2. Can you give me a live demo right now? 

If not, why not? Technology that only works by appointment may not be as ready for primetime as you’re being told. Yes, restaurant AI is new and evolving. Yes, it may still be somewhat imperfect as a category.  Nevertheless, any AI company worth your consideration should be willing and able to walk you through what the tech can do without warning. 

One “buyer beware” for restaurants looking to onboard voice AI (our category) is that some vendors don’t rely exclusively on AI and have unseen call centers with human monitors sat latently in the background mimicking the actions of an AI. Clearly, this leads to much higher overheads that are then passed on to a restaurant. And ultimately, the “ghost (human) in the machine” is slower, less scalable, and more inclined to mishear or misunderstand too. 

3. How long until it knows my business and works as sold? 

All current AI technology has at least one thing in common – it needs to learn. It might be your menu or your floor plan, but to be truly tailored to your business (as it should be), an automated system needs to go through an initial period of data gathering. During this period, you’ll have to survive without it, so if its role is business critical then the length of time it takes to onboard is of significant concern. Usually, it’s a case of “the quicker the better.” 

Some AI sales people might dance around this question, but you should insist on an answer and hold them to it. You could also ask for metrics or other customer testimonials that speak to the initiating phase. 

4. What is the process for bringing on additional locations? 

If AI yields the benefits you were hoping for, then you’re going to want to replicate that success across your network. Importantly, you won’t want to go through the entire process every time like it's the first time. Make sure you ask what kind of efforts are needed for additional locations. Where relevant, you should ask about additional channels too – for example, asking if voice AI technology can also be easily deployed across drive-thru, kiosks, devices, and over the phone.  

If a vendor implies that they have to treat every new evolution like a whole new business, then alarm bells should start to ring. If you continue to expand then this could become arduous, costly, and disruptive. 

Give preference to AI companies that explain clearly and concisely how they can assist with broader roll out without any significant additional burden to you. 

5. Any patents?

This sounds like an elitist question – a bit like asking the seller if they went to Harvard – but, when it comes to high tech systems, it's more important than you might think. 

You wouldn’t hire an unqualified chef, or take financial advice from someone with only surface-level knowledge of finance. With artificial intelligence, you should seek out companies that have a full suite of expertise – including patented, proprietary technology developed in-house. If they built the technology, you can bet that they’ll be able to provide the highest possible standard of support to you and your business as you move forward together. 

AI isn’t for hobbyists, it’s a scientific domain that is best understood by skilled professionals. One of the quickest ways of knowing if your would-be partner has true engineers and AI specialists on the staff is to ask what technology they developed and own.

These pointers aren’t intended to discourage restaurant owners from exploring their options when it comes to AI – quite the opposite. Businesses that hesitate now risk being left behind as the restaurant industry embraces emerging technology to solve ongoing problems and meet new, higher consumer expectations. 

Nevertheless, going into the market for restaurant AI right now isn’t for the faint hearted. These questions should help the uninitiated ensure that any AI they do buy is the real deal.