Going from repeated orders to a side of AI speed, Wendy’s is reinventing the drive-thru
Matt A.V. Chaban
Senior Editor, Transform
Piloting cutting-edge generative AI takeout windows in Ohio helps the fast-food leader free workers to focus on customer experience.
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When is a Frosty not a Frosty?
When a customer sitting in the drive-thru calls it a chocolate shake or asks for a frappe.
What if you didn’t have to ask a customer “Can you repeat that please? Can you repeat that please?” over and over again, and could serve them with a side of AI instead? Wendy’s is using Google Cloud’s generative AI to create a new way to drive-thru, improving speed and accuracy of orders.
Miscommunication happens, speakers garble speech, and then there’s all the slang customers use for their favorite items. A milkshake to you may be a frappe to your friends from Boston. Or a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger can be a “JBC.” What if you were to roll up to a Wendy’s drive-thru and order a JBC in a Biggie™ Bag with some nuggets and two shakes?
A human taking the order may understand. They’re part of building the lexicon, and even if they don't get it, they can ask some clarifying questions, like is that a four- or six-piece nuggets? Spicy? What kind of sauce? We don’t have shakes, but how about a strawberry Frosty, that’s only around for a limited time, or a classic chocolate?
For an artificial intelligence chatbot, this kind of back-and-forth is an intensely complicated technical challenge. Especially if there's other ambient noise, which there always is at the drive-thru. Or maybe the customer has a thick accent. These quirks can make it difficult to parse what’s being said — or if that was music coming from the backseat as the kids watch their favorite movie on a tablet. Combined with the endless permutations and evolutions of language, using AI to take orders at the drive-thru would seem like an insurmountable challenge.
Unless you have generative AI that’s been developed over years to understand greater and greater numbers of experiences, contexts, languages, and even slang.
Wendy’s is testing the automation of how orders are taken at the drive-thru with the help of generative AI and Google Cloud. Starting in June, Wendy’s began running a chatbot beta test at a company-owned location in Columbus, Ohio. The goal of this beta is to streamline the drive-thru ordering process by making it easier for employees to fill orders and provide excellent customer service.
"How do we set our employees up to be in a position to succeed and make their lives a little bit easier in the restaurant?” Todd A. Penegor, Wendy's CEO said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “Get them positioned to work the grill station? Get them positioned to make hot and juicy hamburgers fast and accurate every time? That's what we're trying to do."
Wendy’s new drive-thru chatbot will be powered by Google's foundational large language models (LLMs) that have been combined with a corpus of data from Wendy's menu plus the ticks and trends of customers’ ordering habits. This information is then integrated into the restaurant’s hardware and point-of-sale systems. It will have established business rules and logic for conversation guardrails, along with the possibility for ongoing updates as new menu items — or slang — come to be.
How do we set our employees up to be in a position to succeed and make their lives a little bit easier in the restaurant? ... That's what we're trying to do [with AI].
Todd Penegor, Wendy's CEO
Through generative AI, Wendy's can make the ordering process simpler and easier for employees, allowing them to focus on serving hot, fresh-made, and delicious food and building the relationships that bring customers back time and again.
“From the drive-thru to digital platforms, we meet our customers where and how they want to enjoy Wendy’s while leading the way in restaurant technology trends,” Matt Spessard, Wendy’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, wrote in a blog post.
Getting things right at the drive-thru is critically important. Wendy’s does up to 80% of its business via the pick-up window, an amount that has grown in recent years. Similar trends are true across the industry, so optimizing the business of the drive-thru is of utmost importance for quick-service restaurants to attract and keep customers.
Wendy’s has been on the forefront of innovating its customer experience through technology, partnering with Google Cloud in 2021 to bring data-driven insights, AI, and computing power at the edge to enhance service and dining experiences. Wendy’s uses BigQuery and Looker to improve its data and business analytics capabilities, as well as Anthos to modernize its applications and infrastructure. In addition to the new generative AI capabilities at the drive-thru, Wendy’s uses Google Cloud’s pre-trained AI models to gain new insights and drive innovation faster than it could by itself.
“It would take Wendy’s years to create this capability on our own,” Wendy’s CIO Kevin Vasconi told Forbes. “When you combine on-demand infrastructure with pre-built AI models, we're gaining acceleration. That speed is crucial because our franchisees want to respond to business issues and opportunities as they arise. They don’t want to wait a year and a half for an IT project to assist them.”
A Frosty will always be a Frosty, a classic American treat. But now, with the power of generative AI and powerful tools from the cloud, a Frosty can represent a whole new dynamic for how customers interact with one of the most iconic brands in the world. In the process, Wendy’s can transform and streamline its entire operation, enabling employees to better serve customers and dish up the delicious meals it has long been known for.
The Wendy’s name, logo, Frosty, and Biggie are trademarks of Quality Is Our Recipe, LLC and Wendy’s International.