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

As restaurants’ hiring challenges persist, many brands are turning towards automated solutions to lower their labor costs, and while some consumers may think these changes detract from the dining experience, some may rethink their position as higher labor costs for restaurants lead to higher menu prices for consumers.

One such automated solution provider, voice, vision, and touch technology firm Presto, is looking to play a major role in this automated shift. The company announced last week (July 26) that, in the leadup to its going public via merger with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Ventoux, it has raised $100 million (a $60 million equity investment with $40 million on the way).

“Our counterparties for our technology, the people who use our technology, are large, restaurant brands doing billions of dollars in revenue,” Rajat Suri, founder and CEO of Presto, told PYMNTS’ Karen Webster in an interview. “When they pick a provider for critical technologies, they like to pick companies that have been through some rigor on their financials and their business and not a fly-by-night startup.”

He noted the company, which works for major brands including McDonald’s, KFC and Chili’s, among others, underwent the lengthy, involved U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) review process required to become a publicly traded company in order to “show the world and our customers” that the company is serious about its plans to “scale and serve the biggest brands in the world.”

The Robo-Restaurant of the Future

Suri argued that the digital shift is old news, with automation being the next frontier.

“What is a relatively new trend is [physical industries like restaurants are] actually not just digitizing, but they’re also automating,” he said.

Certainly, many major brands have been doing everything in their power to mitigate their labor needs with robotic solutions. Fast-casual giant Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, has been trying out an artificial intelligence (AI) autonomous kitchen assistant created by Miso Robotics that prepares tortilla chips according to the brand’s recipe.

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Brinker International, parent company of Chili’s Grill and Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, meanwhile, has been testing delivery via drone and via sidewalk-roving robot.

See also: Chili’s Parent Trials Sidewalk Delivery Robots

Yum Brands, the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill, had AI-powered, text-based ordering up and running at almost 2,000 stores by the end of last year.

Read more: Restaurants Leverage Conversational AI to Automate Order-Taking

Suri added that restaurants are not only having trouble filling open positions, but also, when they do fill these positions, it is often with a less than ideal candidate, as they have “had to lower their standards,” making automation “more of a priority than ever” to maintain productivity and consistent quality.

The Service/Efficiency Tradeoff

As these automated technologies increasingly impact the consumer journey, especially when it comes to front-of-house technologies such as QR code menus and self-service kiosk or own-device payments, restaurant customers are divided.

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, reveals that 58% of grab-and-go customers think more restaurant technology means better customer service, while only 29% of on-premise diners think the same.

Related news: Restaurants Tinker With Tech Recipe to Balance Efficiency and Personal Service

Additionally, the study, which drew from an April survey of around 2,500 U.S. consumers who regularly purchase food from restaurants, also found that more than 1 in 3 diners considers staff friendliness to be the most important feature a restaurant needs to provide.

However, Suri argues that restaurants’ ongoing labor challenges will put these preferences to the test.

“It’s easy to say that you prefer [the non-digital experience],” he said, “but are you going to be willing to spend 30% more for your meal?”

Finding Your Voice

Suri argues that voice technology will take over not only the parts of the restaurant industry where it is already being tested, such as automated order-taking (AOT) technology at the drive-thru or own-device ordering via voice assistants, but also at self-service kiosks and through pay-at-table systems. Additionally, as far as internal use, he noted that staff could use the same kind of technology to tell customers’ orders to their tablets rather than inputting the orders manually.

He contends that these systems not only reduce the amount of work that requires employees’ time but, as the technology becomes increasingly effective, also boost the consumer’s experience, because they will not make the same sorts of mistakes a human might and because the customer can interact with them on demand.

“I think within five years, you’re going to see voice applications everywhere in restaurants,” Suri said, “because the technology has matured a lot, and it’s ready for prime time.”