How Taco Bell and KFC are using technology to lower their food costs

The fast-food restaurant chains are using artificial intelligence to make their weekly supply orders, which is designed to increase accuracy and cut back on food waste.
KFC Taco Bell AI
KFC and Taco Bell are using AI to help with supply ordering. / Photograph: Shutterstock.

Managers at some 3,000 KFC and Taco Bell restaurants in the U.S. get a great deal of help in making their weekly food orders from a robot.

Specifically, the restaurants have added what parent company Yum Brands calls “Recommended Ordering,” a machine learning program that predicts and recommends the quantity of product managers order every week.

The goal, CFO Chris Turner told investors this week, is to cut back on food waste and ultimately lower food costs. In addition, he said in an interview, “it makes the day-to-day operations for managers and team members easier.”

The system, he said, recommends the optimal order sizes for the week for an individual restaurant. The idea is to ensure that restaurants have the right amount of product. It reduces the number of times a restaurant manager has to beg a nearby location because they ran out of lettuce, for instance. And it helps ensure that they don’t order too much that must be thrown away.

“This is a much more analytically advanced approach,” Turner said. He noted that managers had tools previously, but they didn’t go this far.

The program is being adopted at KFC and Taco Bell locations across the U.S. this year. It comes as Yum Brands has been pushing a growing amount of technology to improve the operations of its restaurants.

More of that technology is behind the counter. While customer-facing technology like kiosks or fancy menu boards or loyalty programs get all the publicity, more brands have been focusing on back-of-house efforts. With food costs up more than 14% over the past year, and labor costs up too, brands have put more energy on improving efficiency in their operations.

Yum Brands has invested heavily in technology, buying companies such as the food preparation automation company Dragontail Systems and the AI marketing firm Tictuk, with the goal of making life easier for workers, employees and customers.

In addition to the Recommended Ordering system, for instance, the company is expanding Dragontail to test what it calls Cook Schedule in a small number of U.S. locations. KFC is planning to test that program in an “international market” soon. Cook Schedule helps predict the right amount of food to prepare as well as the timing to meet demand.

Dragontail connects Pizza Hut kitchens with driver locations to plan when the right time to prepare pizzas for upcoming orders to ensure they arrive at their destination at the hottest temperature possible. “Cook Schedule is an extension of that sort of thinking,” Turner said. “It uses artificial intelligence to make team members’ lives easier.”

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