Business is booming.

Panera Bread, Popeyes Test AI Bots at the Drive-Thru to Boost Sales

  • Panera Bread is known as a restaurant pioneer when it comes to technology.
  • The chain is working with tech startup OpenCity to test voice bot ordering at the drive-thru.
  • OpenCity, which also works with Popeyes, says AI-powered bots can improve accuracy and speed. 

In 2019, Nick Belsito, CEO of food tech startup OpenCity, said many restaurant operators’ eyes would glaze over when he talked about his company’s artificial intelligence software at food conferences.

Before the pandemic, OpenCity used voice AI technology to automate restaurant reservation orders. 

“When I mentioned A.I. before the pandemic, people looked at me like I was E.T. What is this other-worldly thing?” Belsito said.

With indoor dining shut down at the onset of the 2020 pandemic, the need for reservations went kaput while delivery and drive-thru orders surged. So Belsito shifted OpenCity’s business model. 

The startup now automates orders at the drive-thru using an AI-powered bot named Tori.  

The adoption of Tori is picking up steam for the Boston-based startup. Last week, fast-casual giant Panera Bread began testing OpenCity’s AI-powered tech at two upstate New York restaurants. Panera joins a Popeyes’ franchise restaurant in Louisiana, which started piloting Tori in late April. 

Belsito said OpenCity is taking advantage of a “unique” space with room to improve order accuracy and sales at the drive-thru, where sales represent about 75% of revenue for fast–food restaurants.

“This is core technology that’s going to be vital to the future of restaurants,” he said.

The owner of the Popeyes restaurant in Louisiana, David Damato, said his company, High Noon Restaurant Group, has seen good results, so far. Speed of service has increased by 20% and order accuracy is at nearly 100%.

The restaurant’s drink sales have increased by 150% because Tori automatically upsells high-margin items such as soda fountain drinks, sides, and desserts.

Those stats captured the attention of Panera Bread.

Raj Anbalagan, senior vice president of digital and technology innovation, said Panera is hoping automation will elevate the guest experience by improving accuracy and speed at the drive-thru lane.

“There are a multitude of ways you can do it. And this was one of the ways that we felt that we could test to see if there is a true unlock,” Anbalagan told Insider in a recent interview. 

Anbalagan has been pushing innovation for years at Panera. He helped the brand launch digital ordering at the chain in 2014 by adding kiosks in the dining room and mobile orders scheduled through the chain’s app. 

Panera is known for building its tech stack in-house.

Still, for this experiment, Anbalagan said it was better to leverage OpenCity’s tech “rather than investing and building on our own for the time being,” he told Insider. 

Specifically, Anbalagan said he was looking to gain a 5-10% improvement in speed of service using Tori.

He also hopes the experiential aspect of Tori will “delight our guest,” he said.

Damato reinforced that Tori has been a “true game-changer” for the restaurant. 

“The guests are having fun, and I was shocked at how quickly Tori learned the Louisiana accent,” he said in a statement. “Our team members are loving Tori, too, as it reduces workplace stress since they can focus on serving the guest faster while Tori is taking the order.”

Today, hundreds of restaurants across the US are using AI-powered bots to take phone and drive-thru orders including Chipotle, Fazoli’s, and Domino’s. Some are using OpenCity rivals such as Valyant AI and ConverseNow. 

Belsito said, “Covid has been phenomenal” in changing how the restaurant industry thinks about technology.  

“There’s been a tremendous shift. The restaurant space has seen a change in the guard. They realize technology can be their friend,” Belsito said. 

OpenCity has raised $8 million and works with five different brands in about eight states. Backers include Composite Ventures and NXT Ventures.  

“I expect to be in thousands of restaurants next year,” Belsito said.


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