Top fast casual brand leaders offer valuable insights into how AI is driving a more robust digital drive-thru experience.
The two years of COVID-19 have had a substantial impact on the restaurant industry and on one customer channel segment more than most – the drive-thru experience.
Just consider these statistics: drive-thru visits, which accounted for 26% of orders between April and June 2021, now account for a staggering 42% of all restaurant visits; a recent survey found that 57% of respondents would order more frequently from fast-casual restaurants if more of them used drive-thru.
“One of the things that everyone has recognized since COVID is that the expectations and demands around drive-thru have changed dramatically. Once the pandemic hit, it really flipped the switch,” said Trey Eanes, National Account Manager for Steritech, which partners with brands. to design food, operational and occupational safety assessments.
Eanes made the comments as he kicked off a panel discussion, “It’s not your mom’s drive-thru,” at the recent annual three-day Fast Casual Executive Summit.
The summit is one of several industry events organized by Networld Media Group, the parent company of Fastcasual, Pizza Marketplace and QSRweb. The media company’s next event is the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit to be held March 20-23, 2023 in Coral Gables, Florida.
The panel, sponsored by Steritech, included Scott Boatwright, restaurant manager for Chipotle Mexican Grill; Doug Bostick, President of Fazoli’s and Hal Lawlor, COO at Smokey Bones. The brand leaders shared insights into their respective drive-thru strategies and how artificial intelligence tools and platforms are playing an increasingly important role in making a digital drive-thru experience most rewarding for the customer and the brand team member.
Digital drive-thru brings unexpected benefits, insights
Earlier this year, Smokey Bones launched its digital drive-thru strategy at its location in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The brand, which has 61 full-service locations in 16 states, has rolled out digital order panels, digital order confirmation, a service window for express menu pickup, and parking spots for take-out orders.
Noting that COVID interrupted restaurant traffic, the brand got creative in order to stay operational. He built a remote drive-thru, complete with tents.
“It forced us to do things differently,” Lawlor said.
Digital drive-thru now allows Smokey Bones to also offer customers the ability to order its virtual brands, including Wing Experience and Burger Experience.
“We found that it was a different consumer coming through the drive-thru – a new acquisition that was actually a surprise. It was a win-win convenience opportunity. [for brand and customers],” he said.
Smokey Bones uses AI machine learning from an operational perspective, such as table management and forecasting, which relates to efficient work planning.
“There are many systems that can help you manage food costs through effective forecasting and it is important to look at AI in all its aspects. It does not replace human experience. existing gaps. Providing AI solutions to complement the staff who are there to meet all consumer demands is really, really important,” he said.
The Chipotle drive-thru
In 2017, when Boatwright joined the management ranks of Chipotle, the brand didn’t even have a window inside a store, let alone outside, for picking up orders. At the time, there was a “line” in stores for digital orders. So the brand first renovated the walls and staged pick-up bags outside a pick-up “window” in the store, eliminating unnecessary effort on the part of team members and creating a smoother pick-up route for the customer.
“Sales were up 10% in this channel almost overnight, so when we thought about how to continue to remove friction points and thought about drive-thru,” Boatwright said.
Now, five years later, the brand is an innovator in driving service and adopting AI technology to improve both the customer and team member experience. . Almost everyone is familiar with the brand’s digital steering wheel control pickup lane called Chipotlane, and last November the brand added its 500th unit featuring a Chipotlane.
Stores with a Chipotlane see 10-20% higher volume, and the drive-thru has proven to be the brand’s “most profitable transaction,” Boatwright said.
“We see Chipotlane as the digital drive-thru of the future and it’s where we’re leaning and placing bets as we move forward.”
Chipotle uses AI in several areas of the organization, from customer experience to team member experience.
“We learned by trial and error. If you can’t resolve the pain points for team members, you can’t expect this to turn into a highly rewarding personalized experience for consumers,” Boatwright said.
A big part of Chipotle AI’s effort is Pepper, a bot that plays more than one role for the brand. It relies on machine learning to help the brand with tasks ranging from order taking to customer retrieval.
Still, Pepper still needs some human interaction, Boatwright noted, because a human is needed to fine-tune the bot consistently.
“Someone has to help Pepper so she can do what we need her to do every time,” he said.
One of Chipotle’s latest AI efforts is rolling out a contextualized experience in a Cleveland store. Customers who use the app to place orders receive detailed order status information, and the technology automatically intervenes when picking up guests if an order is overdue.
“It will automatically issue apologies through the app and reward points. We like how it works today because it seems to work really well. But you still need to have someone to guide this experience” , Boatwright said.
Create a drive-thru experience as rewarding as dining in
Fazoli chef Doug Bostick is no stranger to drive-thru and even describes the chain as “very near and dear to his heart.” That’s likely because he’s been at several brands that conquered the drive-thru strategy decades ago – or as Bostick noted: “We had car jumps back then.”
Working in the industry for about 52 years, 40 of them have been with a building with a drive-thru for Bostick.
“I’ve been bringing a bag to the car for 52 years in one form or another,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a change in drive-thru customer expectations and proved to be Fazoli’s saving grace when dining rooms closed. During the pandemic, the brand created “order takers” among customers waiting in line and even handed out the brand’s free breadsticks to drive-thru customers.
“We shifted 100% of those sales to drive-thru and one of the most important things we did was convince our customers that you can walk into a Fazoli and take drive-thru without seeing a long queue or get stuck in a line,” he said.
“We convinced the customer that you can drive and get the level of service you get when dining there.”
When it comes to AI, the brand doesn’t see it as a replacement for a team member, but found the technology beneficial given the staffing issues.
“There’s a lot of learning, and it takes a lot of hard work and patience to implement a system like this in your drive-thru,” he said, explaining how the brand used AI. at two places at the start.
“We were playing with it, switching it up, playing with it and getting aggressive and putting it in 12 places,” he said, adding “that was the biggest mistake I made. .”
The brand pivoted quickly, using AI in just three stores.
“We let the system learn and that’s the key that you have to let it learn before you can go as fast as you want,” he said, adding that the AI, in theory, is great, but that there will always be guests who don’t. I do not like that.
The bot system used handles roughly 60% of the three stores’ drive-thru orders with a back-up call center operation. Stores team members handle the remaining 40% of orders.
“We’re just leaning towards eliminating the call center and letting our people take over the command of the bot if something goes wrong. It takes a lot of discipline and patience in the AI drive-thru before you run into it. you feel comfortable having the system take control.Nothing will ever replace person to person.
For more coverage of this year’s Fast Casual Executive Summit, click here.
Judy Mottl is the editor of Retail Customer Experience and Food Truck Operator. She has decades of experience as a reporter, writer and editor covering technology and business for major media outlets including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews.
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