Wendy's takes its shot at AI drive-thrus

The burger chain has four in operation and plans to test more of them this year and next as rival McDonald’s is set to decide the future of its own effort.
Wendy's AI
Wendy's plans to expand its test of drive-thru AI. | Photo courtesy of Wendy's.

The country’s largest fast-food chains appear intent on putting AI in the drive-thru.

The latest effort comes from Wendy’s, which on Monday said that it has four company-operated locations in Columbus, Ohio, with its “Wendy’s FreshAI,” the technology it started developing earlier this year in partnership with Google Cloud.

The Dublin, Ohio-based burger chain said it plans to add the technology in more restaurants this year. It plans to offer franchisees the opportunity to test AI next year.

“Wendy’s FreshAI is not just a speaker and a microphone,” Matt Spessard, chief technology officer for Wendy’s, said in a piece posted to the Wendy’s website. “It’s a personalized, responsive experience for every customer.”

Wendy’s move comes as drive-thru AI appears to be on the verge of widespread adoption in the major fast-food world. Several large-scale restaurant chains have been experimenting with their own programs, typically through partnerships with technology companies.

Last week, for instance, McDonald’s executives said they planned to make a decision on their own test of drive-thru AI next year. The Chicago-based giant is testing the technology in 100 locations.

Numerous smaller chains, such as Checkers, Krystal, White Castle and Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., have their own drive-thru AI efforts, and large chains such as Dunkin’ are also testing the technology.

For fast-food chains, the benefits are obvious: They help operators reduce the need for labor inside their restaurants. It’s one of the relatively rare technologies that can replace a specific employee position.

Yet brands have been deliberate in their tests of such technology because of the complexity involving ordering and the numerous ways consumers may order food, particularly due to regional dialects and accents. “There are more than 200 billion ways to order a Dave’s Double,” Spessard noted. That can increase mistakes, which can frustrate customers and crew.

Voice AI also digitizes an order that is typically taken by a human, which can ensure suggestive selling or the use of loyalty programs.

It’s also faster. Spessard said one test site had service times that were 22 seconds faster than the market average. As for accuracy, the company typically uses a crew member who joins the conversation to ensure accuracy.

Without that intervention, Spessard said, the accuracy rate for Wendy’s FreshAI is 86% thus far. With the intervention, that increases to 99%.

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