You Would Like Fries with That: Enabling the Next-Generation of Drive-Thru

Artificial intelligence (AI) is something most of us encounter in our everyday lives without even realizing it. Social networks, mobile banking apps, chatbots, robo-readers, connected devices and even ride-sharing apps are all powered in one way or another by AI technology. 

Accenture defines artificial intelligence as a “constellation of technologies – from machine learning to natural language processing – that allows machines to sense, comprehend, act and learn.” The driving concept behind AI is to impart human intelligence onto machines and technology. For businesses, this allows them to create automated, human-like interactions between customers and technology. 

With COVID-19 slowing foot traffic, and the possibility for more in-person dining restrictions on the horizon, restaurant operators are increasingly investing in AI-enabled technology to redefine the restaurant experience. This is particularly true for quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and their drive-thrus.  

The Rise of Digital Channels 

Restaurants are serving guests who are more digitally enabled than ever before. They expect digital ordering options, on-demand choices and services that cater to their online lifestyle. Not to mention an increased level of personalization, regardless of interaction or touchpoint. 

Even before COVID-19, digital channel use was on the upswing. In 2019, DoorDash reported digital channels were expected to reach 30 percent of total sales for the nation’s restaurants by 2025. Establishing a robust digital presence ensures restaurants can capitalize on this growth while, safely, reaching out and serving a wider array of diners.

Today, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital solutions and closed the technology divide, particularly between national chains and local restaurateurs. These digital channels not only provide new capabilities such as third-party ordering, off-premises and contactless delivery or the use of ghost kitchens, they also create new opportunities to leverage AI and enhance the customer experience. 

Drive-Thrus Ripe for Innovation

Many of those same operators launching or driving customer engagement via digital channels also recognize the data-driven benefits. These technologies give restaurants the power to recognize customers instantly, track their behavior, analyze preferences and reach them directly. This way, operators can create highly personalized, almost predictive, guest experiences. 

For example, when customers enter a chain’s drive-thru, their vehicle or license plate can be automatically linked with their persona and ordering preferences. Those orders can then be tracked over time to deliver relevant, tailored advertisements and promotions. This can also eliminate the need for direct interactions between employees and staff, even during payment. 

Likewise, mobile phone data can be used to notify employees to prep orders when customers are nearby. One of the biggest issues amid the pandemic is the growth in delivery, but shortage in drivers. By adjusting fire times so products are prepared when drivers are expected to arrive, restaurants ensure customers receive a warm meal rather than a cold one.

These technologies and similar others are all powered by artificial intelligence, whether through machine learning, natural language processing or computer vision and pattern recognition. And while restaurant operators may focus more on the overall benefits, understanding the underlying technology is crucial as well. 

Consumer Privacy and Data Security

Due to the interconnected nature of today’s technology ecosystem, operators must also ensure each of their stores or locations have secure internet access, cybersecurity controls and data privacy guidelines. These standards can oftentimes be created in collaboration with, or provided by, a technology partner. 

For example, when it comes to internet access, DSL may be a cheaper option, but it does not provide the bandwidth necessary to leverage the full potential of today’s technology. The same goes for network backups in case of an outage or the ability for various software platforms to communicate with each other, otherwise known as interoperability. 

The increase in high-profile data breaches over the previous decade means restaurants must also refine their cybersecurity practices and controls. Loss of sensitive customer information can result in significant damage to a restaurant’s brand and image. By implementing a rigorous cybersecurity framework, restaurants can better safeguard consumer data.  

Operators should also make it clear to customers what, how and where they are using their data. As big-tech companies and governments continue to issue mandates around consumer privacy, this heightened level of transparency will put operators ahead of the game.  

Full-Speed Ahead: 2021

Restaurants have experienced their collective share of challenges this year. Even as customers slowly return to their favorite dining rooms, a full-blown recovery will take time. And the same goes for after a vaccine is distributed: While a net-positive for operators and customers alike, many of changes operators made this year will remain relevant well into next year and beyond.