iRestaurant: Dirty Dough, Sweetberry, CKE Restaurants balance AI with human touch

During this year’s Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Miami, Florida, a session of industry experts and operators convened to discuss automation and how to leverage it for success in the changing restaurant and franchising space. Part 2 of 2.

Panelists L-R: Jason Valentine, CSO, Botrista; Desi Saran, Founder and CEO, Sweetberry; Bennett Maxwell, Founder, Dirty Dough; Phil Crawford, CTO, CKE Restaurants.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

During this year’s Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Miami, Florida, a special session of industry experts and operators convened to discuss automation and how to leverage it for success in the changing restaurant and franchising space. After a general overview of automation, the conversation turned to a hot topic in the industry and across culture: artificial intelligence and its human implications.

“A unique opportunity”

Phil Crawford, CTO, CKE Restaurants said they are experimenting now. “Yeah, I mean, we’re heavily involved in artificial intelligence to the drive thru, we have about 30 locations give or take that alive right now in some sort of NLP with regards to a couple of different providers where you pull into the drive,” he said, explaining that NLP stands for Natural Language Processing, the technology that undergirds systems like Alexa and Google Home.

“The beauty of it is you have a consistent message you can program for upsells. It also takes away the mundane tasks from the employees,” Crawford said. “I have franchisee locations as well as corporate locations training artificial intelligence,” including AI based tools for back-end functions.

“So, it’s going to play a lot of important roles in this industry,” Crawford said. “And we’re way behind. You go overseas, there’s a lot of stuff — it’s already live. The US is behind on this stuff,” he added. “We have a unique opportunity now to catch up.”

Bennett Maxwell, founder, Dirty Dough said that Dirty Dough is developing AI for a number of uses, including camera-based AI that checks every cookie sold for consistency in size, appearance, and more. AI also measures traffic and wait time throughout the day to help franchisees staff effectively.

Desi Saran, founder and CEO, Sweetberry said his team has been using chat AI to talk to customers for a few years now, using a self-learning technology backed by Google that also receives human oversight, and he estimates that the AI has been able to answer many thousands of questions with about 95% accuracy, along with actually carrying on a conversation with customers.

Crawford said they have seen impressive results from AI and automation in retention, employee and guest experience when they reward shifts for hitting goals.

Maxwell chimed in saying that employee efficiency is another area. With up to 25 percent of orders being takeout, every takeout order initially had to be handled by an employee, who would find the order in a warmer in the back before decorating and packaging each cookie. Now, the company has developed new packaging that can be kept in the warmer, so that customers can arrive and without talking to anyone can retrieve their order from a locker.

Crawford said we aren’t there yet, but the NLP technology for AI will eventually allow you to talk to your systems directly and make adjustments with your voice, including back-end tasks like menu board and price adjustments.

Balancing human touch with automation

While people like the human touch, Maxwell pointed out that creating a consistent experience across all locations with human touch is very iffy, where automation provides consistency, so he leans towards automation where possible, even though he respects human touch.

Saran pointed to kiosks. “I think there’s got to be a balance. I don’t think automation is going to fully replace humans yet, but we could get to that point. One of the biggest, easiest examples would be kiosks. I think a lot of us can agree that a human can make mistakes — a human maybe won’t upsell or won’t sell your loyalty program to your customer, where that kiosk is going to do all of that and will not complain and will do it 24/7.” Still, the point of AI and automation isn’t getting rid of your human capital, Saran stressed; automation is meant to free up your employees so they can work on more advanced, creative tasks.

It’s not about replacing humans, Crawford agreed, it’s about reallocating your labor more intelligently in a way that works for you, your employees, and your customers. “I believe these tools should be an enhancement to the operation because we’re in the hospitality industry. It’s about people. It’s about the experience. And the more you diverge from that, it actually affects your brand overall, because we can get systems in place that make the employee happy and the guests happy.”

Guide and provide

The panel also noted that you can’t force automation on guests and employees if they don’t want it or if it doesn’t enhance their overall experience — and particularly for large franchises, it’s vital to make sure you’re not forcing a universal change that only works for a small portion of your customer base.

In that spirit, automated phone systems have a place, but Maxwell said his company is careful not to overdo it. “If you call a stupid automated system, and you’re trying to answer the question, and it won’t give you the answer, and then you also can’t talk to an employee — it bugs the hell out of me,” he said. “So I guess our backup to all of that is: it is very easy, if you want to talk to an employee, you know, press zero and it goes straight to the employee. It’s not going to ask you three more times what you want. Same thing when you’re going in to order the cookies — like, you can use the warming locker, or you can talk to the employee if you want to. We’re not forcing one way. We’re guiding them and hoping they go one way, but giving them the option for the human touch, if they prefer it.”

“I think timing is everything,” Saran added, pointing to examples like ordering via text, which can take time to become accepted among consumers. “And when the customer is ready to change is really something we should all be paying attention to.”

Regardless of how fast technology and the hospitality industry evolve, the panel agreed on a timeless principle for success throughout the journey: respecting the human experience of all stakeholders, from customers to employees, and using automation and AI just like any other tool: to build your business, provide ever better experiences for guests, make your employee’s lives easier and to find new ways to grow every day.

Networld Media Group will host several other food-service summits this year, including the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit July 26, 2023, the Fast Casual Executive Summit Oct. 8-10 and #QSRNext Nov. 9, 2023.

Daniel Brown is the editor of Digital Signage Today. He is an accomplished technology writer whose experience includes creating knowledge base content for a major university’s computing services department. His previous experience also includes IT project management, technical support and education. He can usually be found in a coffee shop near a large pile of books.

Marco’s Pizza to expand Virginia footprint

ICXA announces 2023 Elevate Awards