Drive-thrus are a lead generator of fast-food sales during the pandemic, and many chains, like McDonald’s are trying to speed up the process by deploying new tech, including artificial intelligence for ordering.
At a McDonald’s drive-thru in a Chicago suburb, customers may notice something different about the voice that takes their orders for Big Macs and fries.
But as restaurants across the US began shutting down last March due to Covid-19, the company was uniquely positioned to keep feeding customers while barely coming in contact with them: Of the roughly 14,000 McDonald’s locations across the US, nearly 95% include a drive-thru lane, which gives it more fast-food roadways than any of its competitors.
Before the pandemic, the company focused on improving its overall drive-thru experience — over the past couple years McDonald’s has cut its service time by about 30 seconds per customer, helped in part by a simpler menu.
Over the last few years, McDonald’s also deployed new technology in an aim to modernize its operations and entice customers to order more food.
The company tapped into the technology from two AI startups it bought in 2019: Apprente, which built voice technology for fast-food order taking, and Dynamic Yield, which can customize the ordering experience on digital menu boards.
Now, mobile ordering can help ease long drive-thru lines, Brady said, as customers tend to order more than they did before the pandemic.
McDonald’s is also trying out automated ordering in a few restaurants in the Chicago area, Brady said.
Of course, implementing new technology at McDonald’s scale takes time, and although the company has named drive-thru improvements as a key part of its “Accelerating the Arches” growth plan, it’s unknown how quickly automated voice ordering might roll out across its thousands of locations.
And in November, the company started testing out its own automated ordering system at the drive-thru of a White Castle in Merrillville, Indiana (the same restaurant that already hosts a burger-grilling robot from Miso Robotics).
Richardson said the AI voice system (which also has a computerized, feminine voice) is connected to a digital menu board and can take orders and make food suggestions.
The company will also use a camera for license-plate recognition to personalize orders at the drive-thru — customers must opt in to share their plate number through White Castle’s app-based loyalty program, Craver Nation, so software can pull their order history.
Because PopPay preloads a customer’s account it is cheaper for restaurants than paying a credit-card processing fee for each drive-thru order, Miller added.
Several online reviews of a McDonald’s that’s testing AI order-taking make clear how tricky this latter part can be: “Robot drive thru.