Panera Tests Voice AI as QSRs Automate to Meet Drive-Thru Demand

Panera Bread, AI, QSR, voice ordering, drive-thru

Fast-casual brand Panera Bread, which has more than 2,100 bakery-cafes in the United States and Canada, is testing artificial intelligence (AI) voice ordering technology at two of its upstate New York locations.

The brand announced Monday (Aug. 29) that it is trying out “Tori,” an automated drive-thru voice assistant created by tech company OpenCity, which takes orders and integrates the restaurant’s point of sale (POS) and kitchen display systems.

“At Panera, improving our guest experience is always our priority and we are using this innovative technology to help enable a faster, more accurate order for each of our drive-thru guests,” Panera executive vice president and chief operating officer Debbie Roberts said in a statement. “The potential of AI drive-thru technology is incredibly exciting for us — we are eager to evaluate the performance of these tests and the possibility of expanding this technology in additional bakery-cafes.”

The news comes as restaurants’ ongoing labor challenges strain their ability to meet demand, and as many brands continue to benefit from the surge in drive-thru orders seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As such, Panera is far from the only brand looking into voice AI to boost restaurant efficiency. For instance, Enlightened Hospitality Investments (EHI) — a growth equity fund co-founded by Meyer, the restaurateur behind Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) and Shake Shack — recently invested $10 million in restaurant voice ordering automation company ConverseNow, as the latter announced Tuesday (Aug. 23).

See also: Understaffed Restaurants Turn to Robo-Voice Assistants to Take Orders

“We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way consumers engage with restaurants over the past two years, and for restaurants to earn customer loyalty today they must deliver memorable experiences,” Meyer said in a statement. “ConverseNow … drives innovation in the restaurant industry by enabling team members to spend more time interacting with guests where they can bring hospitality to the forefront of their offering.”

Additionally, restaurants ranging from McDonald’s to Checkers & Rally’s to Sonic Drive-In, among others, have tested voice-ordering AI at the drive-thru or on called-in orders.

On the consumers’ side, it certainly seems that drive-thru customers are ready for a more automated experience. Research from the May/June edition of PYMNTS’ Digital Divide study, “The Digital Divide: Technology, The Metaverse And The Future Of Dining Out,” created in collaboration with Paytronix, revealed that 58% of grab-and-go customers think more restaurant technology means better customer service.

In contrast, only 29% of on-premises diners believe the same.

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Moreover, research from PYMNTS’ 2021 How We Eat Playbook, created in collaboration with Carat from Fiserv, which drew from a survey of a census-balanced panel of more than 5,200 U.S. consumers, found that 20% of consumers say they are “very” or “extremely” interested in using their voices to buy food and groceries.

Read more: 182M Consumers Now Use Digital Channels to Shop and Pay for Food

Conversely, restaurants’ need for these technologies is growing more urgent, as ongoing labor challenges compromise customer service.

Research from the 2022 edition of PYMNTS’ Restaurant Readiness Index, created in collaboration with Paytronix, which drew from a survey of more than 500 managers of quick-service and full-service restaurants across the country, found that about one in three restaurants report that their level of service has decreased as a result of staffing issues.

Related: More Than Half of Restaurants Depend on Digital Sales, Despite Uptick in On-Premises Orders

Consequently, many in the space believe that the technology is soon to hit a tipping point.

“I think within five years, you’re going to see voice applications everywhere in restaurants,” Rajat Suri, founder and CEO of voice, vision and touch technology firm Presto, told PYMNTS’ Karen Webster in an interview earlier this month, “because the technology has matured a lot, and it’s ready for prime time.”

Learn more: Presto CEO Says Tech-Wary Restaurant Customers May Change Their Tune as Prices Rise