Taco John's is putting AI voicebots in the drive-thru

The Mexican fast-food chain plans to bring Presto Voice technology to more restaurants after it improved speed and ticket size at a test location.
Taco John's restaurant
AI voice is headed for franchised Taco John's stores this year. | Photo: Shutterstock

Taco John’s plans to use artificial intelligence to handle drive-thru orders at many of its restaurants.

The fast-food Mexican chain will bring the voice technology from Presto Automation to its more than 350 franchised restaurants this year, the companies announced Monday. Taco John’s began testing an AI voicebot in April at one location in Minnesota and is installing it at a second store in Wyoming in August.

“Preliminary test results have been very positive,” said Ryan Baune, VP for technology at Taco John’s, in a statement. “We are seeing improvements around speed of service, order accuracy, and an increase in average ticket size primarily driven by upsell attachment.”

The nearly 400-unit, Cheyenne, Wyoming-based chain known for tacos and Potato Olés is just the latest fast-food brand to turn some of its drive-thru operations over to AI. Others testing the technology include White Castle, Wendy's, Checkers and Rally’s and Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s.

AI has faced questions about its ability to handle the fast-paced, high-volume drive-thru channel. But proponents say the technology is ready, and that it can free up employees to do other things and boost sales with automatic upsells.

[What is AI, exactly? Read our in-depth explainer.]

At Taco John’s, it has allowed staff to begin making a customer’s food as soon as it’s ordered, which has helped speed up operations, said Steve Smyth, director of restaurant technology at Taco John’s. Another benefit: Employees no longer have to switch between taking orders and handing food to customers.

This helps to improve the personal interaction with the guest,” Smyth said in a statement. “We are excited about the future possibilities of voice AI and feel that the best is yet to come.”

To further ease operations at Taco John’s, Presto is integrating directly with the chain’s POS provider, Qu, so that orders taken by the AI show up in real-time on kitchen display screens.

The deal marks a win for Presto, which has been struggling financially this year. Late last month, it raised $3 million to allow it to continue operating through June 15. It must raise another $3 million by June 7 to get an extension on its agreement with its lender.

Nonetheless, the company seems to have found its sea legs under interim CEO Gee Lefevre. In May, it unveiled a new version of its AI, Pure AI, which can take orders without human oversight. The previous version is supported by human agents, who step in when the program falters.

Presto declined to say whether Taco John’s will be using Pure AI. 

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