Technology

Why Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza ditched its AI phone system

The bot, nicknamed Becky, was alienating customers and staff. “Everyone said, ‘Becky’s gotta go,’” said CEO Carl Bachmann.
Anthony's added the AI phone system in December. | Photo: Shutterstock

When Carl Bachmann became CEO of BurgerFi and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza in July, he spent two months traveling to the chains’ restaurants to get a feel for the business. And during his visits to Anthony’s, he kept hearing about someone named Becky.

Employees and customers alike seemed to have beef with Becky. And Bachmann couldn’t figure out how she could possibly be working in every restaurant.

“I said, ‘Who is Becky?’” he recalled. “And everyone said, ‘Becky’s gotta go, Becky’s gotta go.’”

He soon learned that Becky was the nickname for Anthony’s AI phone-answering robot. The chain added the bot to its 60 corporate locations last December to handle the roughly 500,000 phone orders that come in every year. In doing so, it joined a number of chains that have outsourced their phone lines to AI recently, touting labor savings and higher check averages. Except Becky wasn’t doing a very good job. 

Bachmann said the system, which is made by ConverseNow, had too many prompts and too many steps. And it tended to anger Anthony’s many regular customers, who often liked their pizzas prepared a specific way. “That was very difficult to program on the AI side,” Bachmann said.

This created friction for employees, who had to deal with the frustrated customers when they came in to pick up their pie. Plus, Bachmann said staff missed interacting with guests.

The chain looked at ways to tweak or improve Becky. “But in the end we realized that what our guests are missing, and the nostalgia of Anthony’s, was the personal service,” Bachmann said. So one of his first acts as CEO was to ditch Becky and go back to having employees answer the phone.

“I think it’s probably one of the best things we’ll do for the organization,” he said.

Anthony’s move is a new wrinkle in the growing debate around technology and hospitality and how to best balance the two. Some operators have argued that tools like Becky can free up workers to spend more time with customers. Others say just the opposite: That AI creates a barrier between restaurant and guest.

Anthony’s is in the latter camp, at least when it comes to phone bots. Removing Becky, Bachmann said, will allow it to put a human touch back into its hundreds of thousands of annual phone transactions. That is important to Anthony’s, which prides itself on old-school, chef-driven cooking and full-service hospitality. 

That doesn’t mean Anthony’s is anti-tech. It’s looking at upgrading its POS system and outfitting servers with handheld tablets that allow them to beam orders directly to the kitchen. And its sister brand, the fast-casual BurgerFi, is decidedly tech-forward, having embraced things like kiosks and even robots in some locations.

“But pizza, right, people wanna talk, you wanna be recognized at your place,” said Cindy Syracuse, the chains’ CMO. “The regular just wants that simple acknowledgement.” 

The chain expects to see some savings from dropping the system, which Bachmann said was expensive. It also expects to see a traffic boost as alienated customers return. And it is training its staff on how to upsell, which was one of Becky’s specialties. 

“I think you have to find that happy medium and how to use technology to help you,” Bachmann said. “It’s just, where do you draw the line? And I think you draw it around hospitality.”

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