Artificial intelligence is coming to more than 100 drive-thru lanes at White Castle, the fast food hamburger chain that invented the “slider” in 1921.
The company announced Tuesday that the project will tap into the proprietary voice AI technology of SoundHound and digital signage from Samsung Electronics America to deliver a state-of-the-art customer ordering experience.
“With White Castle cravers everywhere hungry for our hot and tasty menu options, we are investing in processing orders at the drive-thru even more swiftly,” company Vice President of Operations Services Mike Guinan said in a statement.
“By working with tech innovators at SoundHound and Samsung, we’ve been able to create an engaging ordering experience that customers are loving,” he continued. “It’s the model for tomorrow today — and evidence of how friendly technology and great partners can be a game changer.”
White Castle, which has about 350 locations nationwide, announced its plans to bring SoundHound to 100 of its drive-thrus in August after a successful pilot in 2020, but now Samsung will add a visual component to the project.
“In uniting our extensive voice AI expertise with Samsung’s MagicINFO display technology, we’ve created a first-class interactive experience for White Castle’s drive-thru customers,” SoundHound Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer James Hom said in a statement.
“We look forward to finding new opportunities to partner to unlock the power of digital outdoor signage and turn menus into interactive restaurant portals with almost limitless possibilities,” he added.
Dynamic, Interactive Menus
Such portals could make staid, static menus a thing of the past. “The menu will become more dynamic,” SoundHound Head of Channel Partnerships Mike Lauricella told TechNewsWorld.
(Video Credit: SoundHound AI)
“With voice AI, you might be able to pull up to a drive-thru display and ask for only gluten-free items or all the special deals of the day or what’s the best value for $10?” he said. “You would have greater control over the menu portal.”
“There are a lot of drive-thrus in this world, but there are also informational kiosks and other applications where there is a screen that could benefit from voice AI to be more responsive and interactive with a customer,” he added. “Whether it be ordering or information, there’s a lot of directions this could go.”
“With MagicINFO, Samsung is helping transform menu boards from simple, static displays to personalized, easy-to-navigate experiences for the customer that also deliver business benefits to the restaurant,” the company’s Senior Vice President of the Display & Home Entertainment Division James Fishler said in a statement.
“By integrating SoundHound’s AI-driven voice technology, we’re providing an extraordinary experience for White Castle customers when it comes to enjoying what they love,” he continued. “This is just the beginning of a relationship that will propel their brand to the cutting-edge of customer experiences powered by innovation.”
By deploying a voice AI ordering system, White Castle hopes to take advantage of the potential benefits the technology can bring to its restaurant operations. For example, White Castle noted that the AI-enabled system processed orders in just under 60 seconds, with 90 percent order completion rates that exceeded previous staff-based benchmarks.
“An AI-enabled drive-thru adds a higher level of efficiency, a higher level of order accuracy,” Lauricella observed. “It allows the staff in the store to focus on the customers in the store and make great food in a very consistent way.”
“We get constant feedback from the White Castle stores where we deploy our systems that the staff is more efficient,” he added. “They’re happier, too. Hiring is tough, so the more enjoyable you can make the day-to-day job of your team, the longer you’re going to keep people. That’s a high priority for White Castle.”
AI systems are efficient because the order entry goes directly into the system, noted Bob Bilbruck, CEO of Captjur, a strategy, consulting, digital, technology development and channel programs provider in Irvine, Calif.
“You don’t have input errors or other things,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The only issue is if there’s a change in an order, but the systems are getting better at that, too.”
He added that AI is reducing margins and operating costs in the quick-service restaurant industry. “In fast food, that’s everything right now,” he said. “Margins are so small because the food has to be cheap to make it valuable compared to competitors.”
An AI system can also provide a chain with real-time intelligence about its business. For example, the system can correlate orders to recent advertising campaigns or limited-time offers.
“That can be done without AI, but you lose the real-time element,” Lauricella acknowledged. “The process would be more manual and might not get done because of all the things a team member has to do.”
Integrating the AI systems with the point-of-sale systems is getting easier, too, Bilbruck added. “Some POS systems offer SDKs, but all of them offer APIs that allow the AI systems to feed into the POS system,” he said.
He explained that the systems also have a favorable ROI for the businesses that install them. “We’re seeing automation pay itself off within the first year of the investment,” he said. “The systems are really not that expensive. They’re really cost-effective compared to the operational cost of one or two full-time employees.”
“A lot of chatbots are taking over now for an actual human being,” he added. “If they have a problem with an order, they’ll transfer the customer to a human being, but most of the time, it’s all automated.”
“Many of the fast food restaurants in Southern California are putting these systems in place because it’s more cost-effective than having a human being there,” he noted.
Workers Feel More Human
Most automated systems being installed now are AI-enabled, Bilbruck continued. “The cool part about that is that over time, they get more intelligent about questions from customers and the nuances of orders,” he observed. “Within a year, they’re well trained enough to not have any issues or problems.”
While much has been written about AI costing workers jobs, Lauricella maintained that hasn’t been the case at White Castle. “They haven’t reduced employment in any way,” he said. “If you go to any White Castle today, you’re going to see a help wanted sign. Hiring is still a huge challenge.”
Concerns have also been raised in some quarters that increased automation will remove the human touch in the restaurant business.
“I asked a team member at White Castle that question,” Lauricella recalled. “She said, ‘Before, I’d be on the headset. I’d be fussing with things. I’d be talking to someone in the drive-thru and talking to someone in the store. Now, I can do one thing. I can focus on the person I’m interacting with, whether it be a customer or team member, and give them my full attention. This allows me to be more human at the end of the day.’”