Panera Bread, Popeyes Tests AI Robots at Drive-Thru to Increase Sales

  • Panera Bread is known as a restaurant pioneer when it comes to technology.
  • The chain is working with start-up tech company OpenCity to test the order of its drive-thru voice robots.
  • OpenCity, which also works with Popeyes, says AI-powered bots can improve accuracy and speed.

In 2019, Nick Pelcito, CEO of food technology startup OpenCity, said the eyes of many restaurant operators would shine when he talked about his company’s AI software at food conferences.

Before the pandemic, OpenCity used voice AI technology to automate restaurant reservation requests.

“When I mentioned AI before the pandemic, people looked at me like I was outside. What is this otherworldly thing?” Belcito said.

With indoor dining venues closed at the start of the 2020 pandemic, the need for reservations has vanished while orders for pickup and drive-thru have soared. So Pilsito changed the OpenCity business model.

The startup is now automating orders around the clock using an AI-powered bot called Tori.

Tori’s adoption is gaining momentum for the Boston-based startup. Last week, fast-paced giant Panera Bread began testing AI-powered OpenCity technology at two restaurants in upstate New York. Panera joins the Louisiana franchise restaurant Popeyes, which began trying Tory’s in late April.

Pilsito said OpenCity is taking advantage of a “unique” space with space to improve order accuracy and sales in one location, where sales Represent About 75% of fast food restaurant revenue.

“This is a core technology that will be vital to the future of restaurants,” he said.

Popeyes’ Louisiana owner David D’Amato said his company, High Noon Restaurant Group, has done well so far. Service speed increased by 20% and order accuracy reached nearly 100%.

The restaurant’s beverage sales have increased 150% because Tori automatically sells high-margin items such as soda fountain drinks, sides and desserts.

These stats caught the attention of Panera Bread.

Raj Anbalagan, Senior Vice President of Digital and Technology Innovation, said Panera hopes automation will elevate the guest experience by improving accuracy and speed on the driving path.

“There are a lot of ways you can do this,” Anbalagan told Insider in a recent interview. “And this was one of the ways we felt we could test to see if there was a real opening.”

Anbalagan has been driving innovation for years at Panera. The brand helped launch digital ordering in the chain in 2014 by adding booths in the dining room and scheduled mobile orders through the chain’s app.

Panera is known for building its technology portfolio in-house.

However, for this experience, Anbalagan said it’s better to take advantage of OpenCity technology “rather than invest and build on our own right now,” he told Insider.

Specifically, Anbalagan said it is looking to improve service speed by 5-10% with Tori.

He also said he hopes the experimental side of Toure “delights our guest”.

D’Amato asserted that Toure was a “real game-changer” for the restaurant.

“The guests are having fun and I was shocked at how quickly Torey learned the Louisiana accent,” he said in a statement. “Our team members love Tori too, as it reduces workplace stress as they can focus on serving the guest faster while Tori takes the order.”

Today, hundreds of restaurants across the United States are using AI-powered robots to take orders over the phone and drive including Chipotle, Fazzoli, and Domino’s. Some use OpenCity competitors such as Valyant AI and ConverseNow.

“Covid has been exceptional” in changing the way the restaurant industry thinks about technology, Belcito said.

“There has been a massive transformation,” Belsito said. “The restaurant space has seen a change of guards. They have realized that technology can be friendly to them.”

OpenCity has raised $8 million and works with five different brands in about eight states. Backers include Composite Ventures and NXT Ventures.

“I expect to be at thousands of restaurants next year,” Belcito said.

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