Wendy’s has a chatbot taking drive-thru orders

"You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee."

A Google-trained chatbot has begun taking customer orders at a Wendy’s drive-thru in Ohio — and if an upcoming pilot project goes well, the AI could be rolled out across the nation.

The challenge: Drive-thru traffic at fast food restaurants surged early in the pandemic and remained elevated even after customers regained the option of dining in — today, up to 80% of Wendy’s orders come through the drive-thru, compared to about 66% pre-pandemic.

At the same time, chain restaurants are having trouble hiring enough workers, which can mean a slower turnaround on orders.

As a result, drivers may see longer drive-thru lines when they pass by their favorite fast-food joints, which can deter them from stopping by. Customers might even abandon their spot in line if it’s moving too slowly.

Up to 80% of Wendy’s orders come through the drive-thru, compared to about 66% pre-pandemic.

Wendy’s chatbot: In an attempt to get as many customers through the drive-thru as quickly as possible, Wendy’s has teamed up with Google to develop a chatbot to take customer orders. The idea is that this will free workers to focus on making food, taking payments, and handing over orders.

“We do not anticipate reducing labor, but instead, shifting crew responsibilities to meet the increased volume of Wendy’s orders expected in the drive-thru and across our growing digital channels,” the company told Bloomberg.

And then… Wendy’s chatbot was built on a large language model (LLM), a type of AI trained to interpret and respond to natural language, the kind people use to talk to one another (the popular ChatGPT is built on one of OpenAI’s LLMs: GPT-3.5).

To create the Wendy’s chatbot, Google combined its LLM with speech recognition tech and customized it to understand terms that it might encounter while processing orders — they taught it that customers might say “JBC” when they want a junior bacon cheeseburger, for example. 

“We do not anticipate reducing labor, but instead, shifting crew responsibilities.”

The Wendy’s Company

They also trained the AI to upsell, asking customers if they’d like to try a daily special or opt for a larger size, and to understand what to do if a customer decides they want to change an order that’s already half complete.

Once the AI was trained, the developers then had to refine it to filter out background noise, such as a car radio or the sound of passengers talking.

Looking ahead: Wendy’s began testing the chatbot at a company-owned location in Columbus, Ohio, earlier in 2023, and according to Kevin Vasconi, Wendy’s chief information officer, it’s been performing well.

“It’s at least as good as our best customer service representative, and it’s probably on average better,” Vasconi told the Wall Street Journal.

The plan now is to launch a pilot test of the chatbot at that same location in June 2023. Wendy’s hopes this pilot will show owners of franchises — independently owned and operated stores — that the AI can speed up service without raising any red flags with customers.

“[The chatbot] will be very conversational,” Todd Penegor, Wendy’s CEO, told the WSJ. “You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee.”

“It’s at least as good as our best customer service representative.”

Kevin Vasconi

The big picture: Wendy’s isn’t the only fast food company looking to AI to improve the drive-thru: the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s parent company, CKE Restaurant Holdings, just announced that an AI named “Tori” will be taking orders at some of its drive-thrus.

McDonald’s, meanwhile, has already deployed an AI order taker at 24 locations, but before rolling out the tech more widely, the company wanted to get its accuracy up to 95% — as of June 2022, it was 80%.

While that less-than-perfect start has led to an abundance of criticism online (and generated some hilarious fail videos on TikTok), it’s not terribly far below the 89% accuracy rate at standard McDonald’s drive-thrus — and actually slightly better than Wendy’s 79.4%, according to an online survey of drive-thru customers.

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