At FSTEC, AI takes center stage

The technology has been the talk of the conference. But many operators are still searching for the best applications, and some worry it could hurt the dining experience.
AI is "the devil of this industry," Craveworthy founder Gregg Majewski said at FSTEC. | Photo by W. Scott Mitchell Photography.

Artificial intelligence has been such a hot topic at the FSTEC conference in Dallas this week that one operator joked about turning it into a drinking game.

“Do a shot every time someone says AI,” said Jeff Caplan, CIO of Hooters of America, during a panel discussion Tuesday.

If attendees did that, they would likely be feeling a little askew this morning—but probably no closer to determining where, exactly, artificial intelligence belongs in restaurants. 

Indeed, although AI came up in almost every on-stage conversation at the three-day tech event, it tended to generate more intrigue than answers. 

“I don’t know that any of us can sit here and say, ‘Holy cow, this is what we’re gonna do [with AI],’” said Marc Lohmann, CEO of the high-tech chicken chain Birdcall. 

That doesn’t mean restaurants aren’t interested. The technology, which can learn, make predictions, solve problems and generate language, holds a lot of promise for an industry that is increasingly looking for ways to operate more efficiently. Major brands including Chipotle and Starbucks are using it to do things like forecast demand or make recommendations to mobile app customers. 

“Like everybody, we’re exploring it,” said Subway CTO Dave Blankenship during a panel at FSTEC. The sandwich giant doesn’t use AI today, but Blankenship said two potential applications are automating the chain’s franchisee help desk and taking orders in its drive-thrus. “That’s an interesting use case for us to look at,” he said. 

Much of the AI discourse revolved around where the cold, calculating technology fits in an industry that prides itself on hospitality and human connection. Some operators were doubtful to say the least. 

“I think AI is the devil of this industry,” said Gregg Majewski, CEO and founder of Craveworthy Brands, a group that includes Genghis Grill and BD’s Mongolian Grill.

He explained that while the technology has “outstanding” applications for the back of house, it has no place in the dining room, where he fears it will stunt the next generation of potential hospitality leaders by standing between them and the guest. “You will never, never see AI in my front of house,” he said.

Others, however, argued that AI can actually enable more interaction between staff and customers. Lohmann said if Birdcall were to use it, the goal would be to automate mundane back-of-house tasks so employees could spend more time in the dining room, helping customers or cleaning tables. It’s a philosophy adopted by many brands investing in the technology. 

“I'd rather not have a team member sit in the back of house slicing pepperoni on a pizza,” said Sherif Mityas, CEO of Brix Holdings, the parent company of a fully automated concept called Pizza Jukebox, among other brands. “I'd rather have that team member talking to the guest, making sure they’re having a great experience … and then letting the robot actually make it.”

During an on-stage focus group with consumers, most seemed receptive to the idea of AI handling some tasks traditionally done by humans, though it may be a tougher sell with older generations.

“I think there’s limited interaction, conversation,” said Lorena, who represented the boomer generation on the panel. “I really think they just get to a point where you don’t get across.”

Still, if restaurants can get it right, the benefits could be significant. IHOP, for instance, recently began using AI in its online ordering system to recommend additional items to customers before they check out. So far, 50% of guests are taking IHOP up on those offers when they order, said Justin Skelton, CIO of IHOP parent Dine Brands, at FSTEC. “It's been highly successful so far,” he said. 

Caplan, meanwhile, said that if Hooters were to implement AI in an area such as customer support, it could reduce operating costs by an estimated 5% to 7%.

Those kinds of results have created an unusual amount of interest in the technology. Kelly Esten, SVP of enterprise at tech supplier Toast, said the company’s board has been asking Toast what it plans to do with AI.

“There’s not a lot of conversations where at the board level they’re asking about the applications of specific technologies,” she said. “There’s a belief that it will change the financial profile of a lot of companies.”

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