In Tough Times, Restaurant Owners Are Turning to AI to Lighten the Load

Putting in new technology, including voice AI, can actually help reinforce a restaurant’s brand experience.
drivethru speaker voice

We’ve all seen the articles and novelty news segments about robotics in the restaurant industry. Whether it’s robot wait staff orburger flippers, there’s a good chance the story features some commentary about restaurateurs turning to technology to pick up the slack as they struggle to hire staff.

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What we might take to be a PR stunt can often mask a genuine anxiety around fulfilling orders and satisfying hungry customers who may otherwise turn on their heel and go elsewhere. Restaurant owner Refik Turkanovic, owner of the bar in Denver that uses a robot server, recently told reporters: “We did this just to help alleviate some of the labor pressure.”

Life in the restaurant industry can be financially challenging at the best of times, so the thought of missing out on customers or letting would-be diners down is an ugly one. Troublingly, this is an everyday reality for business owners who do not have the staff or the flex in their day to pick up phone orders while trying to seat in-person customers and execute on tickets in the kitchen.

The most recent restaurant employment data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is stark. Though numbers have inched up post-pandemic, restaurant industry staffing still lags nearly three-quarters of a million jobs behind pre-pandemic highs.

With reputations on the line, any solution needs to be substantive and easily accessible to regular restaurants across the US.

Fortunately, the restaurant industry embraces change when it makes sense. Owners have learned that new technology can help plug the gaps and create efficiencies in order taking and processing that ultimately bolster the bottom line. We’ve seen the emergence of sophisticated POS systems, menu QR codes, and kiosk ordering – tech that doesn’t have eyes or wheels or look like something out of The Jetsons.

As part of this tech drive, proprietors are also increasingly looking to AI and its potential. Not an AI in some strange humanoid form, but real artificial intelligence that can take on simple, repetitive tasks – like order taking – that can divert restaurant staff from cooking food or giving customers their full attention.

But there is understandable nervousness. Can I trust new AI systems to get it right? Will the customer experience suffer? And these are valid questions, but they can overlook how diners have enthusiastically adopted new ways of interacting with brands – and how putting in new technology can actually help reinforce a restaurant’s brand experience.

Take voice AI. Many smaller restaurants have been struggling to take phone orders and have been letting that phone ring out or leaving customers on hold for long periods. Yet smart, affordable voice AI can now understand your customers (and your menu) well enough to take an order over the phone, run it straight to the kitchen, and initiate a payment – all without distracting a server from dine-in guests.

And what works with a phone line can also work for drive-thrus, where 70% of frustrated customers say they’re open to a technical solve for long wait times and bad service. These days voice AI can interpret a spectrum of accents and emphasis, pick-up on changes and additions to an order, and even upsell. And with the right partner, it can embody a brand and become a trusted and familiar touchpoint for customers.

Victor Matchie, the owner of Monkey Subs, a sandwich spot in Aloha, Oregon, credits his voice AI ordering assistant with helping him to maintain a good relationship with his patrons: 

“Occasionally, a customer would come in and let us know that they had been trying to call in for the last hour and our phone was off the hook. That was a continuous problem because we got too busy and would lose customers,” he said in an interview with Pymts. “Now no-one needs to be put on hold, and the people standing in line don’t have to wait for us to stop and answer the phone.”

It’s not just about voice AI. As a tool, AI is appearing in many guises to help lighten the load when it comes to running a food business. It’s personalizing customer communications, reducing food waste by ordering the right supplies at the right time, and expediting delivery. And the use cases just keep coming

By now we know that once futuristic-sounding tech (like a virtual assistant!) quickly becomes commonplace and functional. The same will undoubtedly be true of many smart AI restaurant solutions emerging now, and – for food establishments in desperate need of support – these tools are already out there waiting for owners to take a leap of faith.

In the end, it could be AI that makes the difference between getting out ahead of customer demand, or needlessly falling behind amid the hunt for reliable and experienced staff.

About the Author

James Hom, Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer at SoundHound. In his role as CPO, James leads all product development and advancement for the voice AI platform and multiple B2C products—reaching hundreds of millions of end-users.

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