A.I. Could Soon Take Your Fast-Food Order

Wendy’s is testing a chatbot that can converse with customers, answer questions and send orders to the kitchen. Other chains are making similar moves

Wendy's will roll out its A.I.-powered chatbot at a restaurant near Columbus, Ohio, next month. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress via Getty Images

Wendy’s has announced it will begin testing an A.I. chatbot that can take orders from customers in drive-thrus. The pilot program, called Wendy’s FreshAI, is a partnership with Google and will launch at a restaurant in the Columbus, Ohio-area next month. 

With 75 to 80 percent of Wendy’s customers preferring to use the drive-thru, the fast-food chain’s CEO Todd Penegor says the company hopes to “take out the slowest point in the order process—ordering at the speaker box,” per CNBC’s Julie Coleman. 

The chatbot will be able to converse with customers, answer frequently asked questions and understand made-to-order requests, per a statement. It’s also getting trained on Wendy’s lingo, including knowing that a “JBC” is a junior bacon cheeseburger, and a “Frosty” is the company’s name for a milkshake, reports Angus Loten for the Wall Street Journal. It has even been programmed to upsell customers by pushing daily specials or larger sizes. 

“It will be very conversational,” Penegor tells the publication. “You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee.”

After the customer places their order, the A.I. will confirm it on a screen, then send it off to the kitchen for the line cooks, per Bloomberg’s Daniela Sirtori-Cortina. At the test location, an employee will monitor the A.I. and be available in case a customer wants to speak with a human. 

Wendy’s FreshAI is powered by Google’s large language models—or models trained on extensive datasets to find patterns in language and generate words. Large language models also drive the popular A.I. chatbots ChatGPT and Google Bard, which have made headlines in recent months for their remarkable ability to give human-like responses to prompts. To avoid concern over A.I.’s potential to manipulate users and spread misinformation, Wendy’s FreshAI will likely work a little differently—it has logical and conversational guardrails and was trained on the company’s menu and business rules, per the statement. 

Wendy’s isn’t the only fast-food chain to experiment with A.I.—in 2022, Popeyes launched a chatbot called Tori at a restaurant in Louisiana. The A.I. increased speed of service by 20 percent, drink sales by 150 percent and customer satisfaction by 20 percent, according to a statement. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have also implemented A.I.-powered voice ordering at some drive-thru locations and recently announced they planned to roll out the tech at restaurants nationwide. 

Wendy’s says its A.I. isn’t intended to replace human employees, instead it plans on “shifting crew responsibilities to meet the increased volume of Wendy’s orders expected in the drive-thru and across our growing digital channels,” a spokesperson for Wendy’s tells Entrepreneur’s Madeline Garfinkle.

But tech leaders, including the A.I. pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, have raised concerns about the technology upending the job market. Goldman Sachs economists recently estimated as many as 300 million full-time jobs worldwide could be replaced by automation.  

Krishna Gupta, the automation chairman and interim CEO for Presto, which provides A.I.-powered tech for restaurants like McDonald’s and Chili’s, tells Bloomberg Technology’s Ed Ludlow he envisions A.I. completely replacing humans at drive-thrus. 

“I don’t think in three years there’s going to be a single drive-thru having a human take your orders,” he says to Bloomberg Technology. “Voicebots—whether that’s ours or someone else’s—will be pervasive. They will never get tired of delivering perfect service, upselling the customer and ultimately delivering a lower-cost, higher-revenue experience to customers.”

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