Top fast casual brand leaders offer valuable insight on how AI is driving a more robust digital drive-thru experience.
The two years of COVID-19 levied a substantial impact on the restaurant industry and one customer channel segment more than most — the drive-thru experience.
Just consider these statistics: Drive-thru visits, which sat at 26% of orders between April and June 2021, now represent a staggering 42% of all restaurant visits; a recent survey revealed 57% of respondents would order from fast casual restaurants more frequently if more had drive-thrus.
“One of the things everyone has recognized since COVID is that expectations and requirements around drive-thru have changed significantly. Once the pandemic hit it really kind of flipped the switch,” said Trey Eanes, national account executive for Steritech, which partners with brands to design food safety, operational and workplace safety assessments.
Eanes made the comments as he kicked off a panel talk, “This Ain’t Your Mama’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 being held March 20-23, 2023, in Coral Gables, Florida.
The panel, sponsored by Steritech, featured Scott Boatwright, chief restaurant officer for Chipotle Mexican Grill; Doug Bostick, president of Fazoli’s and Hal Lawlor, COO at Smokey Bones. The brand leaders shared insight on 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 the most rewarding for both the customer and the brand team member.
Digital drive-thru brings unexpected benefits, insight
Earlier this year Smokey Bones kicked off its digital drive-thru strategy at its Bowling Green, Kentucky location. The brand, which has 61 full-service locations across 16 states, deployed digital ordering boards, digital order confirmation, a drive-up window for express menu pickup and parking spots for to-go orders.
Noting that COVID shut down dine-in traffic, the brand got creative in order to stay up and running. It constructed remote drive-thru, complete with tents.
“It forced us to do things differently,” said Lawlor.
The digital drive-thru now allows Smokey Bones to also provide customers the option to order its virtual brands including Wing Experience and Burger Experience.
“We found it’s a different consumer going through the drive-thru — a new acquisition which was actually a surprise. It was a win-win convenience opportunity [for brand and customers],” he said.
Smokey Bones is using AI machine learning from an operations perspective, such as table management and forecasting, which relates to efficient labor scheduling.
“There are a lot of systems out there that can assist you with food costs via effective forecasting and it’s important to look at AI from every aspect. It doesn’t’ replace the human experience. It’s meant to supplement the gaps that are there. Providing AI solutions to supplement the staff that is there to meet all the consumer demands is really very important,” he said.
The Chipotle drive-thru journey
Back in 2017, when Boatwright joined Chipotle’s leadership ranks, the brand didn’t even have a window inside a store, much less outside, for order pickup. Back then there was a “line” in the stores for digital orders. So the brand initially did some wall renovation and staged pickup bags outside a pickup “window” location in the store, eliminating any unnecessary effort by team members and creating a more seamless pick-up journey for the customer.
“Sales went up 10% in that channel almost overnight so when we ideated on how do we continue to remove friction points and we thought what about drive-thru,” said Boatwright.
Now, five years on, the brand is an innovator when it comes to drive-thru and embracing AI technology for both boosting the customer experience as well as the team member experience. Most everyone knows of the brand’s drive-thru digital order pick-up lane called Chipotlane, and this past November the brand added its 500th unit featuring a Chipotlane.
Stores with a Chipotlane see a 10% to 20% higher volume and the drive-thru has proved to be the brand’s “most profitable transaction,” said Boatwright.
“We consider Chipotlane the digital drive-thru of the future and that is where we are leaning and placing bets as we move forward.”
Chipotle is using AI in several areas of the organization, from the consumer-facing experience to the team member experience.
“We’ve learned through trial and error. If you can’t solve the friction points for team members you can’t expect that to parlay into a customized highly rewarding experience for consumers,” said Boatwright.
A big part of the Chipotle AI effort is Pepper, a bot that plays more than one role for the brand. It leverages machine learning to help the brand on tasks from order taking to guest recovery.
Yet, Pepper still needs some human interaction, noted Boatwright, as a human is needed to refine the bot consistently.
“Someone has to help Pepper along so that she can do what we need her to do consistently every single time,” he said.
One of Chipotle’s latest AI efforts is deploying a contextualized experience in a Cleveland store. Customers using the app for order placement are being provided detailed insight on order status, and the technology automatically jumps in on guest recovery if an order is late.
“It will automatically issue an apology via the app and reward points. We love how it’s performing today as it seems to be working really really well. But you still need to have someone guide that experience along,” said Boatwright.
Creating a drive-thru experience as rewarding as dining in
Fazoli’s chief Doug Bostick is no stranger to a drive-thru and even describes the channel as “very near and dear to his heart.” That’s likely due to the fact that he’s been at several brands which conquered the drive-thru strategy decades ago — or as Bostick noted: “We had car hops back in the day.”
Working in the industry for about 52 years, 40 of those have been with a building with a drive-thru for Bostick.
“I’ve been taking a bag to the car for 52 years in some form or fashion,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove change in customer expectations at the drive-thru and proved to be the saving grace for Fazoli’s when dining rooms closed down. During the pandemic the brand created “order takers” from customers pulling into the line and even doled out the brand’s free breadsticks to drive-thru customers.
“We transferred 100% of those sales to the drive thrus and one of the biggest things we did was convince our guests that you can go to a Fazoli’s and hit the drive-thru and not see a big, long line or get stuck in a line,” he said.
“We convinced the guest you can drive through and get the level of service you get when you dine in.”
When it comes to AI the brand doesn’t view it as a replacement of a team member yet has found the technology beneficial given staffing challenges.
“There are a lot of learnings, and it takes a lot of work and patience in putting in a system like that in your drive-thru,” he said, explaining how the brand was using AI in two locations at the start.
“We were messing with it, changing it, playing with it and got aggressive and put it in 12 locations,” he said, adding “it was the biggest freakin’ mistake I made.”
The brand pivoted in quick fashion, using AI in just three stores.
“We’re letting the system learn and that’s the key you have to let it learn before you can move as fast as you want to,” he said, adding that AI, in theory, is great but there will always be guests who don’t like it.
The bot system in use handles just about 60% of the three stores’ drive-thru orders with a call center backup operation. Team members at the stores handle the remaining 40% of orders.
“We are leaning toward just eliminating the call center and letting our people take over the bot order if there is an issue. There is a lot of discipline and patience that has to go into AI drive-thru before you’ll feel comfortable having the system take the order. Nothing will ever replace person to person.”
For more coverage of this year’s Fast Casual Executive Summit click here.
Judy Mottl is 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 top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews.
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