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Virtual Ordering Assistants are Going Mainstream in Restaurants Nationwide: ChatGPT’s Impact on Voice AI

AI companies are using OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard to help virtual assistants ‘think like a person’ to automate drive-thru and phone orders.
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AI has made its way into thousands of restaurants across the country in the form of virtual ordering assistants, which take guests’ orders at the drive-thru and over the phone. Now, generative AI technology like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard have supercharged the process, positioning voice AI to become the default method for ordering food.

AI-Powered Virtual Ordering Assistants

The virtual assistants of today are worlds ahead of the older automated answering systems that have frustrated us all at one time or another. These new-age digital assistants use advanced conversational AI technology to have natural, free-flowing exchanges with consumers.

Someone calling to order a pizza, for example, can ask AI about specials and promotions, place a complex order, change their mind by talking to a friend in the background, and then place a new complex order with the same flow as if they were speaking with a physical team member. Alternatively, they can opt to go with a saved or favorited order for the process to take just seconds.

Digital ordering assistants are thoroughly trained on each restaurant’s menu and integrate directly with the store’s POS system, drive thru base station, phone provider and other elements within the tech stack. And while they perform well from day one, they continue to improve over time as they learn from each conversation they process.

In cases where guests prefer to speak with a live person, they always (or at least they should always) have the option to do so.

Generative AI: A Core Ingredient

Conversational AI is powered by language models, where the virtual assistant draws from a huge pool of data to select the most appropriate action and response based on the customer’s statement (or utterance, in AI speak). Generative AI, which is based on large language models (LLMs), makes the pool of data to pull from even bigger while also making the virtual assistant’s selection quicker and more refined.

While conversational AI was processing orders with strong proficiency before ChatGPT and Bard came along, adding a ‘layer’ of generative AI on top supercharges the process.

Before generative AI, a virtual assistant was previously limited to a pre-programmed list of responses for each conversation. That list of responses would grow steadily over time as it took in new information. With generative AI added in, the number of possible responses off the bat are nearly infinite, and the virtual assistant learns at an even quicker rate.

Several voice AI providers have implemented generative AI into their existing technology, where the improvements look to take accuracy, naturalness and overall guest experience to unprecedented levels.

“Our top priority is making guests happy. That means the order has to be taken quickly and it has to come out right. The guest may not be accustomed to ordering with a virtual assistant, but they have to find the experience enjoyable enough to not ask for a person instead. ChatGPT and Bard are a huge help here,” said Vinay Shukla, Co-Founder and CEO of ConverseNow, a provider of AI for restaurants. “Generative AI and LLM’s are allowing our tech team to move faster than we could have ever done on our own.”

The Impact of Voice AI in Restaurants

Voice AI providers are reporting that virtual ordering assistants are making a positive impact for guests, staff and owners alike. Adding ChatGPT, Bard and other LLM’s into the mix looks to elevate these results even further.

For guests, voice AI can improve the ordering experience by shortening wait times and giving guests more freedom and flexibility. For phone orders, the concept of waiting on hold is effectively eliminated, as is the endless ringing that comes with calling during peak hours where understaffed stores can’t take the time to answer calls. At the drive-thru, strong potential exists for shorter lines, and even stores designed specifically to take on more drive-thru traffic with AI as a foundation. In all cases, guests can take all the time they need to place their order, without someone on the other end pressuring them to finish up.

For staff, order-taking has long been a time-consuming and repetitive process. AI lifts a huge weight off their shoulders, leading to lower stress, better job satisfaction and longer retention. Some owners have reported staff leaving other stores to join theirs, knowing that AI will allow for an easier job at the same pay.

AI is also boosting restaurants’ bottom lines. Staff spend less time taking orders and more time making them, in some cases doubling volume during critical peak hours. On top of that, owners are reporting average ticket increases in excess of 20%, largely attributed to AI upselling guests on additional items such as sides, drinks and desserts.

AI in Restaurants Across the Country

New-age virtual ordering assistants rose to the public spotlight in 2019, where McDonald’s acquired voice AI company Apprente the following year to use in its drive-thru operation. McDonald’s went on to sell Apprente to IBM in 2022, reflective of a period where the future of AI in restaurants rests with AI providers.

Many of the nation’s leading restaurant brands are at various stages of rolling out virtual ordering assistants in their drive-thrus and phones:

  • Wingstop, Domino’s, Blake’s Lotaburger, Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Fazoli’s are working with ConverseNow, with several of these brands using AI in 100% of their locations
  • CKE (Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s), Checkers and Rally’s, Panera and Popeye’s are testing multiple voice AI providers at various scales, with groups like Valyant, OpenCity, Presto and Hi Auto in the mix
  • Wendy’s is partnering with Google to pilot their own AI solution, FreshAI
  • White Castle recently announced their plans to use AI in 100 locations by the end of 2024

Generative AI looks to accelerate the restaurant industry’s adoption of virtual ordering assistants. Restaurants are perhaps one of the largest applications of generative AI and LLMs, with the potential to impact millions of customers and thousands of restaurant workers across the country on a daily basis.

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