The Future Has Come to the Drive-Thru

QSRs are using AI to take orders and speed up service.

March 02, 2021

CHICAGO—Speeding up service at the drive-thru is something fast-food and fast-causal chains spend a lot of time tweaking. Now some are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help, CNN Business reports. With drive-thrus gobbling an ever-growing share of QSR sales more than ever before, giving customers faster and faster service is paramount to keeping those dollars flowing into the store.

Pre-pandemic, Burger King, McDonald’s and White Castle started investing in AI drive-thru technology, but COVID-19 made faster service even more critical. Technology experiments include smart menu boards, AI-style assistants, automated ordering and contactless payment systems, including facial recognition payment options.

“Technology is changing the experience, and I think it got thrust into hyper-overdrive by the pandemic,” said Lisa van Kesteren, CEO and founder of SeeLevel HX, which has been watching QSRs’ response to COVID-19.

A year ago, close to 95% of all McDonald's had a drive-thru window. When the pandemic shutdown the country last year, McDonald’s streamlined its drive-thru experience even farther with a simpler menu to provide even faster service. Now, it’s working on implementing more technology such as AI to modernize operations and get customers to increase their orders.

“Humans sometimes forget to greet people, they forget, they make mistakes, they don't hear as well,” said Lucy Brady, McDonald's chief digital customer engagement officer. “A machine can actually have a consistent greeting and remain calm under pressure. … We're really looking systematically at that customer experience and thinking, 'Where can technology make this better and easier and faster?’”

White Castle has also tested automatic ordering systems in Indiana. The chain connected the AI voice system with a digital menu board. The system can take orders as well as make menu suggestions based on past orders if the customers link their loyalty program with their license plate, which will be read by cameras in the drive-thru lane. “The thought is to make sure that it's friendly. 'They remember me, they know who I am',” said Jamie Richardson, vice president of marketing and public relations.

At Fair Oaks Burger in Altadena, California, customers can pay with their face in the drive-thru via PopPay. They must register via an app ahead of time with a credit card and a selfie. PopPay is being used in a variety of restaurants, but Fair Oaks Burger is the first to incorporate it in the drive-thru lane.

"Young people that have grown taking pictures of themselves all the time and posting them on the internet have no problem with facial recognition," said Cali Group CEO John Miller. Cali Group owns CaliBurger, which also uses PopPay.

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