Who needs predictive ordering?

The tech is there, but it might not be working. Have we thought through the unintended consequences?

The New York Times just ran a piece about new tech coming to restaurants across the country in a predictable pandemic-era place: the drive-thru. It’s true that Chipotle began experimenting with drive-thrus (they call them Chipotlanes) well before Covid, and the Starbucks drive-thrus have always been popular. But obviously the situation we’ve found ourselves in over the past year has dictated even more innovation be placed outside the four walls of a restaurant. 

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that McDonald’s was considering a sale of Dynamic Yield, the predictive tech company it bought for upwards of $300 million. According to the report, some McDonald’s franchisees were unhappy that the tech hasn't delivered on its promised sales results. (Included in the Times piece is this line: “It’s unclear whether the technology pays off.”)

Also last week, Yum Brands announced it would buy a marketing tech company called Kvantum that could help Yum (parent of of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, and, most recently, Habit Burger) better understand consumer behavior. Technology, and more specifically, machine learning, is getting better at understanding what we want and why — I’m just undecided on whether or not that’s a good thing. 

It seems that the drive-thru lane is moving toward the same trend that much of the internet has espoused for the last decade: ultimate personalization. Dynamic menu boards can suggest new, popular, or otherwise appropriate items depending on the time of day, the restaurant’s location, the weather. A Burger King test takes this further, using Bluetooth to identify customers in the brand’s new loyalty program (it’s called Royal Perks) and suggest previous orders for re-order, or promote menu items they think you might like. 

Great for creatures of habit, but potentially not so great for variety or experimentation. Is it too far of a jump to suggest that limiting suggestions to the familiar might cause the same sort of trouble as a Facebook algorithm or the same cult-driven behavior that seems to be taking over social platforms? 

To be clear, I don’t think that McDonald’s hawking its new chicken sandwich in a way that makes it easier for customers to come back and order a second is as damaging as what Facebook has done to our democracy and civil discourse. But I do wonder about the future of casual dining as our food choices in apps and on menus are guided by the algorithms that only show us what we want. 

There is something that the tech injection into the drive-thru is undeniably good for: speed and accuracy. (Of course, the Times cites honking customers, garbled intercom conversations, and long lines as common drive-thru stressors, have they spent time in… a city?)  At Chipotle, guests must order ahead for Chipotlane pickup. At Starbucks, guests can order ahead for pickup, a discovery that changed my new-parent life when I discovered it on a visit to my parents in the suburbs. Maybe more important than ordering ahead is paying ahead, an option that saves time and also the shared surface of a credit card, pin pad, or cash. 

During this week’s somber anniversary of all the things that went down last year at this time, a lot of people are reflecting on the pandemic-era changes that will stick moving forward. Drive-thru disruption is one of those things that was happening before Covid but was understandably sped up thanks to the pandemic. I think what’s worth watching, though, are the changes that might bring us closer to our comfort zone, versus the ones that encourage us to get out and explore once it’s finally safe again. 

(Genuinely curious: Do those of you with food allergies, sensitivities, or other dietary preferences prefer to see menus that omit foods you can’t eat? Asking because that’s a common use case touted by proponents of this tech.) 

Dominos will let robots answer its phones

Is the future of online ordering… voice technology? A literal industry of digitally fueled delivery options has grown, in part, from people not wanting to talk on the phone. (Prove me wrong. For all the talk of speed and efficiency and streamlined operations, this is still very much a thing.) But, apparently, missed phone orders can cost restaurants 20 to 50 percent in annual revenue. That’s according to Adam Ahmad, the CEO of a company called Kea that builds AI-powered voice assistants to help companies answer their phones. And Kea is already at work at 175 Dominos locations with another 150 in its pipeline. (In the pizza-verse, according to the Insider piece that shared this news, phone orders can account for nearly a third of sales.) Also: the bots have eight different voices, including one with a southern accent.

Is voice having a moment? The meteoric rise of audio chat app Clubhouse has put an exclamation point on the (resurfaced trend of?) voice interaction, and perhaps we’re all feeling a little more lonely typing words from behind a screen a year into the pandemic. Podcasts have never been more popular. 

But, Uber Eats ditched its own experiment in manning the phones late last year; it stopped a test program in a few markets including Miami that let people order by talking to an Uber Eats rep on the phone. (Years ago a DoorDash exec told me that in the company’s early days it would sometimes phone orders into restaurants that were placed via its digital service, how’s that for speed, efficiency, and streamlined operations?) 

What else is happening? 

Fast Company published its list of the most innovative companies of 2021, including 10 in the restaurant space. Reservations/to-go service Tock tops its list, which also includes Panera (for its coffee subscription and in-house delivery), Slice (for its independent pizzeria technology), Chipotle (for its digital prowess), and more. Here’s the full list

In addition to its list, FastCo published a lengthy piece about Tock and its founder and CEO Nick Kokonas titled “The startup that saved the restaurant industry in the nick of time.” The headline was a little extra for me, especially given that later in the piece Kokonas seems to speak against the $25 billion soon-to-be realized legislation that finally points targeted aid toward the beleaguered independent restaurant industry. (“Too much pork, no accountability,” is what he said in the piece.) I’ll be the first to tell you that all of the places Tock plays in are ripe for disruption, and I know the company has worked well for plenty of its customers — Tock and Kokonas do many things well, including bringing the receipts. The pandemic and its associated challenges for restaurants have certainly served as proof of Tock’s concept and success. Tock to go will remain a part of the company’s offering, another statement about how the business of dining in America is changing, and a reminder that diversified revenue streams are never a bad idea. But what’s most interesting to me about Tock’s pandemic story is that it finally seems to be telling us what it is, not what it’s not. Its early days were almost too laser-focused on its role as the anti-OpenTable. (Though I’ll admit that made for fun coverage — and yes, this journalist still always picks up the phone when it’s Nick calling.)

NOTE: after sending, Tock CEO Nick Kokonas emailed to clarify his remarks in Fast Company, saying: “I disagree with the $1.7T scope of the entire plan, not the $26B for restaurants (though I do think that aspects of that could be written more clearly and incentives are misaligned, though no legislation is perfect).  I'm more worried about printing another $1.7T after increasing our money supply by 28% or so in a single year... this should be focused on infrastructure, small biz, and Covid vaccine / healthcare relief. Unfortunately it sounded like I was against the Restaurants Act.  I am not.”

Chipotle finally has a quesadilla and you can only get it via digital ordering. After years of testing and outfitting its restaurants with the right tools to make the dish, they’re launching nationwide on Thursday — but only via digital orders. For a limited time, customers placing an order through Chipotle’s app or website will receive free delivery; starting later next week, DoorDash DashPass customers can get $8 off a $25+ order that includes a quesadilla. 

Third-party delivery service Waitr reported a profit in the last quarter of 2020 and also for the full year, something that its biggest competitors haven’t done yet. Of course, it’s an order of magnitude smaller than the competition, operating in just eight U.S. states, but it also beat most of them to the public market. The company also announced it would partner with a payment processing company to “create a compliant marketplace, delivery and payment solution” for cannabis dispensaries (even though none of the states in which it operates allow this.) 

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is really challenging the definition of a ghost kitchen, IMO, but it’s also probably going to be successful. It launched this week in Los Angeles with recipes developed by chef Kim Floresca, whose resume includes El Bulli and The Restaurant at Meadowood The brand’s website accepts orders directly; this San Franciscan couldn’t order for herself to see who’s making the deliveries but I have a guess and it rhymes with SnoreSmash. (May it scale like the popularity of a certain candle without the sticker shock of a jade egg.) 

FYI Kayak is opening a hotel. If you, like me, look to what’s happened in online travel as a way to gauge what might be happening in online restaurants, this is a trend worth following! Get ready for The Kayak Miami Beach, which will test an operating software package built by Kayak to capture “all of the travel demand that Kayak can generate,” as reported by travel news site Skift. 

Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley in San Francisco. Thanks for reading!

Share Expedite