Technology

How big restaurant chains are using artificial intelligence

Brands like Chipotle, Starbucks and Domino's are leaning on AI to do things like predict traffic, set prices and bake pizzas before they're even ordered.
Chipotle is using AI to monitor inventory and tell managers when to restock. | Photo: Shutterstock

Artificial intelligence has been the biggest tech trend of the year, not only in restaurants but for the world at large.

The technology, which can learn, solve problems, make predictions and generate language, has taken a big leap in 2023. And it is starting to show up in more restaurants, which are increasingly looking for ways to operate more efficiently as costs rise.

They believe AI can help by doing things like taking orders, forecasting inventory and staffing needs and more.

Here are six big chains leading the way with AI.

Chipotle logo

Chipotle has been a tech trend-setter for years and even has its own venture capital fund for investing in new tech.

That has included quite a bit of AI. Last year, it began testing a system from PreciTaste that monitors inventory levels and tells restaurants when to restock makelines. 

The technology uses sensors to monitor food pans in real time, while also tracking inventory levels and analyzing traffic patterns to help forecast demand. It can even take into account weather and local events that could impact traffic.

In a pilot at eight stores, the system reduced employees’ manual tasks and helped managers make better decisions, Chipotle CTO Curt Gardner said at the time.

Chipotle is also testing the AI-powered robot, Chippy, to make its tortilla chips, and its website features an AI chatbot called Pepper that can field customer questions and complaints. 

Taco Bell and KFC logos

Yum Brands siblings Taco Bell and KFC are also leaning on AI for help with inventory. They have added a system called “Recommended Ordering” that predicts and recommends how much product managers should order every week.

The goal is to cut back on food waste and lower food costs, and make things easier for staff.

Managers had tools like this before, but they weren’t as accurate, CFO Chris Turner said. They may still have had to turn to a nearby location for lettuce in a pinch, or end up throwing unused product away. 

Recommended Ordering is being rolled out to Taco Bells and KFCs across the U.S. this year.

Like Chipotle, Yum has invested heavily in tech, acquiring food prep automation specialist Dragontail Systems and AI marketing firm Tictuk in recent years.

Starbucks logo

Starbucks has been investing in AI since at least 2020 under an initiative called Deep Brew. 

Like the name suggests, Deep Brew works behind the scenes. But it touches quite a lot of day-to-day tasks that the chain believes will make employees’ jobs easier and improve the customers experience.

This includes doing the “heavy lifting” on inventory and replenishment orders. It can help managers predict staffing needs and make schedules, and can anticipate when a piece of equipment might need maintenance so it can be done in advance. 

It is also helping Starbucks make pricing decisions. And it is making the chain’s mobile app more personalized by giving customers tailored recommendations.

“Our focus in these investments will remain on improving the partner experience while elevating the customer experience and delivering productivity gains,” CEO Laxman Narasimhan told investors during an earnings call in August.

Domino's logo

Domino’s has been using artificial intelligence since at least 2014, when it launched a voice assistant called Dom that allowed customers to order a pizza simply by speaking it into Domino’s app. In 2018, it began testing Dom to take orders over the phone as well. 

More recently, its AI efforts have extended to the back of house. On an earnings call in July, executives said Domino’s “next-generation” stores are using technology that enables staff to start making pizzas before customers have even completed their order. Those orders can then be dispatched to drivers before they’ve even returned to the store. This can help lower delivery times.

“If you're making pizzas before people finish ordering them and you're dispatching them in a way that doesn't require your driver to come back into the store and find a parking spot, that's going to help,” CEO Russell Weiner told investors.

IHOP

IHOP in August announced it is using AI from Google to help personalize its online menus, similar to what Starbucks is doing with Deep Brew.

The technology analyzes customers’ past orders and uses that information to suggest things they might like. For instance, it might recommend IHOP’s Poblano Eggs Benedict to someone who has ordered spicy dishes before. It can also surface items that fit a customer’s preferred price range. 

Google said IHOP is the first restaurant chain to use the system, which relies on Google’s Recommendations AI and BigQuery software.

It comes as IHOP leans further into takeout and delivery, which now makes up more than 20% of its sales.

White Castle logo

White Castle is one of a number of chains using AI to take orders in the drive-thru. After testing the system from SoundHound for over a year, it announced plans to bring it to 100 locations by the end of next year.

The bot, named Julia, can greet customers, take their orders and make recommendations. And the chain said it now gets 90% of those orders right without the need for a human to step in. 

“What’s been amazing is to listen to how many different ways people order sliders,” said Jamie Richardson, VP of marketing and public relations at White Castle.

Julia has freed up human order takers to do other things, like help customers. White Castle does not intend to use the AI to replace jobs, and its staffing levels have actually increased, Richardson said.

“We have surveyed team members, and the overwhelming [response is] ‘Please don’t ever take this away,’” he said.

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