Tech innovation in the US foodservice space is rapidly evolving to include a focus on artificial intelligence (AI). Operators across restaurant segments are investing in this technology, whether through internal means, or by acquiring all or a portion of third-party technology companies. According to Mintel’s 2019 US Foodservice Trend ‘Tech in Balance,’ as technology continues to drive the changing face of foodservice, operators are striking the right balance between operational efficiency, a desire for human interaction, and excellent service to all consumers.

AI technology enables operators to provide better customer service to their patrons and tangible benefits that can help translate into long term brand loyalty that is important to operators. This is particularly important for the quick service restaurant (QSR) segment as more than two in five diners are loyal to a QSR because of the restaurant’s customer service according to Mintel research on US quick service restaurants.

AI is mutually beneficial to the diner and the operator. What started as a means to enhance diners’ experience has proven to be an equally valuable resource which will drive continued investment in this area.

The following restaurant operators have turned their focus toward AI in recent months:

McDonald’s

In March 2019, McDonald’s acquired technology company Dynamic Yield to offer personalized recommendations to diners at drive-thru displays. Recommendations are “based on time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic and trending menu items,” according to a McDonald’s press release. After tests in drive-thrus in the US and international locations, McDonald’s will incorporate the technology across its digital platforms including in-store kiosks and its mobile app. This technology will allow McDonald’s to provide tailored promotions to its customers as well as recommended menu items based on customer-selected options.

Sonic Drive-In

In May 2019, Mastercard and kiosk vendor ZIVELO launched a pilot with Sonic Drive-In to offer AI-powered voice ordering and a dynamic menu at select US locations this year. The pilot includes a voice ordering assistant at drive-in and drive-thru menus with personalized menu recommendations based on previous orders and tailored promotions. Similar to McDonald’s drive-thru displays, the menu will update based on weather conditions and time of day, as well as the current season and restaurant location. As consumers become more familiar with digital assistants, this type of technology will become more prevalent. According to Mintel research on digital trends more than two in five consumers agree digital assistants are useful to them.

Starbucks

At Microsoft’s Build developer conference in May 2019, Microsoft and Starbucks detailed several collaborative projects they are working on including predictive drive-thru ordering. While the Starbucks app already offers curated recommendations to consumers based on past orders, Starbucks is testing new drive-thru menus based on store transaction histories and inventory, time of day, and current weather conditions. Microsoft also noted that in the future, diners will be able to opt into even more personalized menu recommendations.

Chick-fil-A

In May 2019, Chick-fil-A announced it was using AI and machine learning to analyze social media posts for conversations around food safety. The operator developed a framework to identify keywords and sentiment from consumer posts across various social media platforms. Restaurant managers can receive push notifications with details about alarming social media posts with the option to contact customers directly via social media. Chick-fil-A is also using AI to instruct employees on proper handwashing techniques to reduce the risk of foodborne illness overall.

Domino’s

In May 2019, Domino’s launched an AI-powered tool, the DOM Pizza Checker, in its Australia and New Zealand locations. The tool compares an image of the pizza with other correct pizza images and checks it for correct toppings and proper topping distribution before it is delivered to a customer. Pizza quality and consistency are two common customer complaints according to the brand, hence the integration of the DOM Pizza Checker. Domino’s is also working on allowing customers to see their pizza in progress before it is delivered. If successful in Australia and New Zealand, this technology has the potential to arrive at US Domino’s locations.

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