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Tired of waiting behind the wheel? Artificial intelligence can provide a solution

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By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business

At the end of summer, Drive-thru times slow motion by about 26 seconds compared to last year, according to a study. It may not seem like much, but in the world of fast food, every moment counts.

“A few seconds can be decisive in determining where a consumer decides to order,” Amanda Topper, research director at research firm Mintel, said of the slowdowns. The data comes from SeeLevelHX, which tracked drive-thru times at approximately 1,500 American restaurants in 10 major chains from July 5 to August 6.

Faster drive-thru can “be a competitive advantage,” Topper said, while long lines can discourage customers from stopping. Most Americans who eat at fast food restaurants use the drive-thru, she noted – and the option has become even more popular during the pandemic, while many customers felt safer in their cars than in restaurants.

So far, the habit has remained. A Technomic consumer survey found that about 52% of fast food restaurant orders were placed behind the wheel in August 2021, up from around 42% in January 2020.

In the highly competitive fast food space, increased demand through any channel is a victory. Restaurants don’t want to lose ground by abandoning any potential drive-through sales, but neither can they overwhelm their systems and risk losing customers.

To solve this problem, fast food chains are looking for several solutions, many of which are more numerous: more lanes, more pickup options, and more technology.

How the drive-thru got stuck

Restaurant recruitment is the leading cause of drive-thru delays. “Work is at the heart of many of the big challenges that… restaurants face right now,” said David Henkes, senior manager at Technomic.

Restaurants and bars were short of around 800,000 jobs in October compared to February 2020, before the pandemic, according to the National Association of Restaurateurs. Workers have left en masse, the resignation rate in accommodation and food services reaching 6.6% in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – more than double the overall average of 3%.

And the pandemic-fueled push towards drive-thru, delivery, and pick-up has created a cycle: with workers scrambling to fill those off-establishment orders, customers inside restaurants can become frustrated – and fall apart. turn to drive-thru instead.

“You’re sitting there in a line, and all the while all the steering wheel controls are filled, the take out orders are filled,” Henkes said. Until the work situation improves, restaurants “divert their resources to where they will be used most efficiently. For many quick service restaurants, it’s drive-thru.

Some short-staffed restaurants choose to keep the dining rooms completely closed. But even as they add more employees to the drive-thru staff, there is tremendous pressure on this channel.

At Wendy’s, for example, staffing issues meant that “we had more dining rooms closed in the third quarter on average than in the second quarter,” CEO Todd Penegor said on a recent call to an analyst. “One of the big keys for us is opening up our dining rooms to really help reduce the pressure on the drive-thru and support our digital business into the future. “

Meanwhile, there is even a challenge with the staff that the restaurants have managed to maintain. The turmoil in the industry means more turnover, which means less experienced workers. “If you have an employee who has been with you for a year, they are much more efficient… than the person you hired three weeks ago,” said Peter Saleh, food and beverage analyst at BTIG.

Larger orders, another pandemic trend, only exacerbate the situation, Saleh noted. Some restaurant chains said that although traffic slowed during the crisis, the average check size had increased. This is partly due to the price increases, but also because people have placed larger orders for families or groups eating together at home.

Order in advance, dual lanes and artificial intelligence

It is not known when, or even if, the labor pool for restaurants will increase. Restaurant owners are therefore turning to other solutions.

Earlier this week, KFC announced a drive-thru alternative called Quick support. Customers pre-order through the KFC app or website, drive to a KFC location and park in a dedicated spot, then enter the restaurant to collect their food from a shelf near the checkout. In its ad, KFC encouraged customers to choose pickup over drive-thru.

This is not a new idea in the pandemic era: fast casual chains such as Soft green and Chipotle have long featured pickup shelves. Last year McDonald’s said it was test express lines and dedicated collection points for customers who have placed digital orders. Burger King also unveiled new restaurant designs last year with similar locations and drop-in ordering windows.

Ordering in advance not only relieves the drive-thru window, but also encourages people to order through an app – an important way for fast food chains to build loyalty with rewards and exclusive offers, and find out more about their customers.

Still, fast food has always been about convenience, so adding another step might not appeal to all diners. Thus, several chains are looking at drive-thru service.

Burger King is build prototypes with more drive-thru lanes. McDonald’s and others are experiment with automated voice technology that can take orders from customers.

McDonald’s has tested automated order taking at several drive-thru services in the United States, CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts on a call in October. He said the efforts “have shown substantial benefits for customers and the experience of the crew.” McDonald’s drive-thru times in major markets have fallen by an average of about 30 seconds over the past two years, according to the company.

In other drive-thru initiatives last year, Restaurant Brands International, owner of Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons, announced that it deploy digital menu screens with contactless payments by mid-2022. And Wendy’s recently announced a partnership with Google to give it access to AI and other technologies that can help improve drive-thru controls.

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