Wendy’s and Google Cloud Test AI Chatbot to Take Drive-Through Orders

Wendy’s Will Test AI Chatbot to Take Drive-Through Orders

FreshAI Will Debut at a Corporate-Owned Columbus Location

In an effort to improve the drive-through experience, Wendy’s will test Google Cloud’s generative artificial intelligence (AI) starting next month at a Columbus, Ohio, area restaurant. The technology, called FreshAI, aims to please the fast-food chain’s customers, employees and franchisees by producing accurate orders more quickly.

The drive-through system will employ an AI chatbot that has been taught to understand the almost countless terms that customers use when ordering. It also will attempt to upsell customers. The FreshAI system is integrated with the restaurant’s hardware and point-of-sale system. As soon as the chatbot completes the order, it will appear in the kitchen, Siliconangle.com reported.

“It will be very conversational,” Wendy’s President and CEO Todd Penegor said in a Wall Street Journal report published Tuesday, May 9. “You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee.”

How AI Chatbot Can Help

Approximately 75% to 80% of Wendy’s customers use the drive-through lane. Orders placed there can easily lead to disappointment because of the multitude of customizable menu options (no pickles, no ice) and off-menu requests (extra ketchup, please!).

FreshAI can recognize thousands of special requests as well as the menu deviations mentioned in drive through orders. The bots will realize that J-B-C means a junior bacon cheeseburger and that a shake translates to the brand-name Frostie, according to the Journal. “You may think driving by and speaking into a drive-through is an easy problem for AI, but it’s actually one of the hardest” because of the nearly limitless variations in human ordering, Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, said in The Journal article.

During the pilot program, which will take place at a company-owned restaurant and not a franchise, the chatbot will converse with drive-through customers to pinpoint what they want; it also will reply to common questions from customers. Results from this trial will help the teams at Wendy’s and Google Cloud determine how the AI can be fine-tuned for trouble-free large-scale use.

A History of Innovation

Wendy’s, which was founded in 1969, has historically embraced innovation. In a news release, Penegor pointed out that “Wendy’s introduced the first modern pick-up window in the industry more than 50 years ago” and added that this work with Google Cloud will “bring a new wave of innovation to the drive-through experience.”

The news release further said that “Wendy’s seeks to take the complexity out of the ordering process so employees can focus on serving up fast, fresh-made, quality food and exceptional service.” Penegor stated that “Google Cloud’s generative AI technology creates a huge opportunity for us to deliver a truly differentiated, faster and frictionless experience for our customers, and allows our employees to continue focusing on making great food and building relationships with fans that keep them coming back.”

The Wendy’s-Google Partnership

In the same news release, Kurian said that “generative AI is fundamentally changing how people interact with brands, and we anticipate Wendy’s integration of Google Cloud’s generative AI technology will set a new standard for great drive-through experiences for the quick-service industry. … We’re thrilled to build upon our partnership with the company with our new generative AI technologies.”

Google Cloud and Wendy’s have been development partners since 2021. Wendy’s has used Google Cloud’s data analytics, additional types of AI, machine learning and hybrid cloud tools. Wendy’s has not disclosed the cost of the AI chatbot ordering project, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Wendy’s Restructuring Program

In March, Wendy’s announced that it would restructure to cut costs as it pushed for growth in sales. Under the plan, the company is aiming to keep general and administrative costs flat for two years, The Journal said, and global sales in 2023 should rise 6% to 8%, based on company projections. Penegor told the Journal that the FreshAI chatbot trial isn’t part of the restructuring efforts and that the company is not looking to replace workers. He said the AI chatbot initiative is designed to help workers by handling manual tasks associated with drive-through orders. Wendy’s and its franchisees employ hundreds of thousands of people in some 7,000 restaurants around the globe.

Photo: Wendy’s

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Mary Vinnedge is an award-winning journalist who has served as editor in chief, managing editor and senior editor at national and regional publications, including SUCCESS and Design NJ magazines. She also held reporting and editing roles at The Dallas Morning News and Charlotte Observer newspapers.

Before Mary began covering franchise news and trends as a staff writer for FranchiseWire and Franchise Consultant Magazine, she developed articles on topics ranging from lifestyle, education, health and science to home projects, horticulture, gardening, interior design and architecture. These articles included her reporting on academic news at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, when Mary worked in the marketing department of the Texas A&M Foundation. She continues to be a news junkie and subscribes to several publications.

Today Mary and her husband are empty nesters living on Galveston Island near Houston. The couple’s blended family – scattered around the United States – includes five children, four grandchildren and two very spoiled, very barky miniature schnauzer rescues.
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