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OPINIONTechnology

Tech roundup: Pizza chains put robots on the phone

Marco’s and Jet’s are testing artificial intelligence to take calls and texts. Also, Brinker expands its use of drone delivery and Nextbite adds plant-based chicken to the menu.
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One thing that continues to surprise me about consumers’ restaurant behavior is that many people still prefer to order over the phone.

There’s no shame in wanting to order with an actual person. But you combine that with online, third-party delivery and in-person orders, and running a restaurant can quickly start to feel like a game of whack-a-mole.

A couple of pizza chains are trying to fix this problem by letting robots answer the phone. Marco’s and Jet’s have each been testing voice-to-text phone ordering that uses artificial intelligence to mimic an actual conversation. The order is transcribed and relayed to the POS without disrupting the restaurants’ regular workflow.

Marco’s said the system has saved time and decreased the number of calls that get abandoned, presumably due to long hold times. Beta tests showed the technology fielded orders with 100% accuracy, the company said. Marco’s has been testing the technology since last summer and plans to have it in all 1,000 of its stores by the end of the year.

Jet’s hasn’t said much about its phone bots beyond that it’s prepping them for a systemwide launch. But the 400-unit chain has had quite a bit of success with a different tool that allows customers to place their order via text message. The channel generated more than $31 million in revenue last year, the company said, and restaurants that offered it saw sales jump by 24%.

These tests come as some fast-food chains, including Checkers and Krystal, are adding similar voice technology to the drive-thru in hopes of easing labor demands. If the AI can be as accurate as the restaurants claim, it could be a useful tool for limiting omnichannel overload.

Brinker International is expanding its test of drone delivery with Flytrex. The parent of Chili’s and Maggiano’s will use drones to deliver food from a Chili’s restaurant in the Dallas suburb of Granbury. It marks Flytrex’s first time operating outside of North Carolina, where it also works with Brinker. Flytrex is focused on suburbs and said its drones can deliver food to a customers’ backyard in as little as five minutes. It has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to widen its delivery radius in markets where it operates.

Nextbite is adding plant-based chicken items from MorningStar Farms. The virtual brand company will expand the menu of its Mizz Mazy’s Amazin’ Chicken concept with two Incogmeato products from MorningStar: the Cheeky Chik’n Sandwich and Fried Chik’n Tenders. They’re only available through May 31 in San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York City. 

Last month, Wow Bao announced its own plant-based chicken brand in partnership with a CPG company: Crazy Crispy Chick’n uses items from Skinny Butcher.

Toast promoted Jennifer DiRico to general manager and head of international. Previously the company’s head of finance, DiRico has spent six years with Toast in various leadership roles and will now work to help it expand internationally.

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