ChatGPT can't flip burgers, but it might be able to sell them

A new report from McKinsey found that generative AI will be handling half of all work activities in the not-so-distant future. That could include some restaurant tasks.
Generative AI could help restaurants create marketing copy. | GIF by Nico Heins

We keep hearing that generative AI like ChatGPT is going to be a game-changer for businesses, and maybe even restaurants. 

The technology has advanced rapidly in recent years and is now capable of producing text and images and performing other tasks that mimic what a human could do. 

What’s still unclear is how much of a difference that kind of thing could actually make if you, say, run a restaurant or a franchise or even an entire brand. 

An in-depth new report from consulting firm McKinsey suggests that generative AI could be significant for just about every industry because of its ability to automate many tasks. 

The firm studied the use of the technology across 63 business cases and determined that the productivity boost it provides could add the equivalent of $2.6 trillion to $4.4 trillion to global GDP. That translates to about 2% to 4% of the whole GDP pie, which was more than $96 trillion in 2021, according to World Bank.

The impact will be felt by all industries, McKinsey said, but especially banking and tech as well as retail/consumer packaged goods.

The full effects, of course, will take time to materialize, but they could be transformative: McKinsey estimated that half of today’s work activities will be handled by generative AI at some point between 2030 and 2060.

What does this mean for restaurants?

The report doesn’t mention how restaurants specifically might benefit from generative AI. But the use cases it identified for retailers very clearly apply to the restaurant industry as well. 

McKinsey found that AI could have an especially big impact on consumer research. For instance, generative AI could aggregate market data that restaurants could use to identify trends and come up with new concepts or menu items. The AI could even generate “synthetic customers” to test with, although it didn’t explain exactly what that might look like. 

It also highlighted some customer-facing applications for generative AI that restaurants may already be familiar with. Voicebots could stand in for human customer-service agents on a restaurant’s help line, or even take orders over the phone. They can also manage repetitive tasks like upselling, which has become a key feature of AI-powered drive-thrus.

According to McKinsey, the AI is getting so good that these interactions will feel increasingly human and lead to better customer satisfaction, traffic and brand loyalty. 

Generative AI could also be put to work in the marketing department, creating copy and visuals and generally helping with brainstorming. McKinsey apparently believes the bots can do this as well or better than human marketers. “The potential improvement in writing and visuals can increase awareness and improve sales conversion rates,” the report said.

Overall, the firm calculated that by using generative AI, the retail and CPG industry could add between $400 billion and $660 billion of value annually, which equals about 1% to 2% of the sector’s overall global revenue. 

Front-line restaurant workers will be less affected

Notably, McKinsey found that generative AI will be used mainly to support things like data and decision-making rather than physical labor. 

That means if you’re a teacher or a painter, your job could change considerably as a result of this technology. Not so much if you’re a server or cook. 

In a measure of the impact generative AI would have on automating different professions, teachers and workforce trainers were at the top, followed by business and legal professionals and STEM professionals. Foodservice ranked near the bottom. 

That said, the restaurant industry is still quite ripe for automation, according to McKinsey—just not as much from generative AI. The firm previously found that 70% of foodservice work can be automated, presumably by robots and other equipment. Adding generative AI to the mix bumps that number up to 78%.

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