AI in drive-thrus—how McDonald’s and others are trying to boost marketing and sales

“Although AI is a sexy topic with a lot of hype, it still does not respond well to anomalies the way a human can,” said Robert Byrne, director of consumer and industry insights for Technomic, a restaurant consultancy. “So it works very well until it doesn’t, and those moments of failure can be very disruptive. It takes time for training data to capture enough anomalous information to minimize disruptions, but there is never a guarantee that it won’t encounter something new. Something as common as wind could distort a voice and cause it to go all ‘Johnny Five is alive,’ get confused and blow a circuit,” he said, referring to the 1986 robot movie “Short Circuit.”

Byrne is skeptical that voice AI can accomplish all it promises. “In essence, a low-trained, quiet-quitting employee is still probably less error-prone given the current circumstances,” he said. “That doesn’t mean [AI] won’t work someday, but today it is still in a development cycle that hasn’t [been] completed and may never be. … Tesla has always seemed to be about two weeks away from fully autonomous vehicles—and then they encounter an anomaly which ends badly.” 

Related: A generative AI guide for brands

Upselling stuffed cheesy bread

But supporters of the technology say one advantage of AI is the ability to upsell customers, turning sandwiches into combo meals and small drinks into larger ones, for instance.

For Shane Graham, a Domino’s franchisee based in Lexington, North Carolina with three restaurants, turning phone orders over to ConverseNow’s AI saved his workers—mostly part-time teenagers—from taking orders over the phone. It was an aspect of the job they had little interest in, nor performed particularly well at, according to Graham.

“The computer upsells, and it does it every time,” Graham said. “It doesn’t say ‘this customer doesn’t sound like they want a Stuffed Cheesy Bread or an ice-cold Coca-Cola.’ And instead of saying ‘ice-cold Coca-Cola,’ a 16-year-old says, ‘Do you want a Coke?’  There’s a difference. AI can ask whether a customer wants extra cheese on a pizza. A 16-year-old isn’t doing that effectively 100% of the time.”

Graham said the system has helped to “protect” his company’s bottom line. While average order values and profits have increased, higher costs for ingredients and supply chain woes have pressured profits. The system had no upfront costs, but Graham pays a per-order fee to ConverseNow.

Hackbardt of Del Taco said it is still too early to determine the effects of upselling in its automated drive-thru lanes but that it looked promising. “Our initial small tests certainly show significant upsell promise and a consistent upsell delivery well beyond the traditional order-taking method,” he said. “Most importantly, the AI allows our team to be super focused on preparing orders and making sure they are accurate and delivered quickly in the drive-thru which is the convenience and quality experience our guests desire.”