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As Minneapolis tries to ban drive-thrus, McDonald’s tries to automate them

September 12, 2019

Pull into a McDonald’s drive-thru in America and blurt into the intercom: “Биг Тейсти c беконом, пожалуйста!”

That order will probably not go down so well; the chances are, you’ll end up neither understood nor served. That’s unless someone working at that particular McDonald’s restaurant coincidentally speaks some Russian, and duly starts rustling up your “Big Tasty with bacon.”

Yet using different languages to order your food could soon become a moot point at McDonald’s drive-thrus. The company just announced plans to install polyglot AI conversationalists to process orders. Perhaps cognizant of its own inability to achieve this in-house, the fast-food giant has just acquired Apprente — a two-year-old startup based in Mountain View, California that’s been making impressive strides in voice recognition software.

Announcing the acquisition this week, McDonald’s revealed it had evaluated Apprente’s solutions in McDonald’s test restaurants. These solutions have centered around the creation of voice-based platforms for complex, multilingual, multi-accent, and multi-item conversational ordering. Senior management figures at McDonald’s hope this technology will allow for faster, simpler, and more accurate order taking at the Drive-Thru; probably lower labor costs too. And the company is mindful of incorporating this further down the line into mobile ordering and kiosks within restaurants.

Mc Tech Labs

It could also help send out a message that McDonald’s is getting serious about bringing tech in-house. “Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental to our Velocity Growth Plan and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests,” said Steve Easterbrook, president, and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation. “Apprente’s gifted team, and the technology they have developed will form McD Tech Labs, a new group integrated into our Global Technology team that will take our culture of innovation one step further.”

In a statement, Apprente co-founder Itamar Arel described how he and his team were “thrilled” to be “creating personalized experiences for customers and crew.” He will serve at McDonald’s as VP of McD Tech Labs in a clear bit of aqui-hiring through this deal. With this acquisition, McDonald’s appears increasingly eager to bolster its presence in Silicon Valley. It is actively seeking to hire additional engineers, data scientists and other advanced technology experts to join McD Tech Labs.

(While a very different deal, we saw a similar set-up emerge when tractor giant John Deere acquired Blue River; the company went on to build out its Silicon Valley presence. Find out more in my colleague Louisa’s podcast with Blue River’s founder here.)

McDonald’s growing tech-stack

Where hiring hasn’t done the trick, McDonald’s has not been averse to buying companies outright; Apprente comes on the heels of other investments aimed at improving the employee and customer experience in recent years.

In April, McDonald’s acquired Dynamic Yield for $300 million, mostly interested in its personalization and decision logic technology; this is now deployed in over 8,000 restaurants in the US. McDonald’s plans to integrate Dynamic Yield into nearly all Drive-Thrus in the US and Australia by the end of 2019. McDonald’s, the company claims, will utilize this decision technology to provide an even more personalized customer experience by varying the menu displays at Drive-Thrus to show customers food options based on the time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic, and trending menu items. The decision technology can also instantly suggest and display additional items to a customer’s order based on their current selections.

McDonald’s also invested in Plexure, a mobile app vendor, earlier this year to help develop its Global Mobile App.

Granted, McDonald’s is not an uncontested frontrunner. As Restaurant Dive reporter Julie Littman notes, “Companies like Valyant AI and 5Thru also have been developing different levels of AI drive-thru technology. Valyant AI offers a similar product as Apprente and has already been deployed at a Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custards in Denver; Good Times expanded is breakfast test to lunch and dinner earlier this year. Sonic is also testing a voice-automated menu through a partnership with Mastercard and kiosk vendor ZIVELO.”

“Other restaurants have been turning to technology as well,” adds Littman, a keen, astute follower of fast food restaurant innovation. “MOD Pizza has been using cloud technology from day one. Panera has long invested in technology, becoming one of the first restaurant chains to use self-order kiosks. Domino’s launched an Innovation Garage a few weeks ago to pilot new technologies. Pei Wei, And Wendy’s, TGI Fridays and Chipotle also have been building up their technological capabilities in recent years.”

An end to Drive-Thrus?

There’s a chance, however, that all the buzz around automated drive-thrus will be surprisingly short-lived; a sign of potential obstacles comes less from technological flaws and more from possible regulatory headwinds. The Minneapolis City Council, for example, has already outlawed the construction of new drive-thru windows, in a bid for cleaner air from lower emissions and as one way to keep roadways safer (a surprising proportion of road accidents occur at drive-thrus.) Minneapolis wasn’t the first; 27 local governments in Canada have either fully or partially banned fast-food drive-thrus, and there are health reasons in favor too. There is every chance that other cities may follow.

And for commentators like Aaron Gordon of the online auto-news site Jalopnik, that’s a welcome development: “Drive-thrus had their moment,” he writes, “namely, the 1950s, when there was apparently nothing better to eat than processed meat and partially gelatinated, nondairy, gum-based beverages lightly tossed to you out of a window. Thankfully, we as a society have moved past this terrible time; we now have a plethora of tastier and healthier options. The bar was very low on both fronts. It is with this in mind that I urge you to choose carefully which side of the coming war on drive-thrus you plan to enlist on.”

What do you think about drive-thrus? Should they all be banned? Let me know [email protected]

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