You do want fries with that: Wendy’s and Google bet on drive-thru AI

Matt Levin Oct 12, 2021
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Artificial intelligence may be coming to a Wendy's drive-thru near you, thanks to a new pairing with Google Cloud. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

You do want fries with that: Wendy’s and Google bet on drive-thru AI

Matt Levin Oct 12, 2021
Heard on:
Artificial intelligence may be coming to a Wendy's drive-thru near you, thanks to a new pairing with Google Cloud. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
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Wendy’s — home of the Frosty and the four-cornered burger — announced a deal Tuesday that caught our eye. The fast-food chain is partnering with Google Cloud to transform the drive-thru experience as you know it.

As in, voice-recognition software that takes your order directly to cooks, avoiding the whole shouting-at-the-drive-thru-menu thing, or that can politely predict when you might want your next Baconator combo.

It’s all part of how the pandemic has forged an even stronger relationship between tech and fast food.

Quincy McClendon hits the drive-thru at a Wendy’s near Sacramento, California, about twice a week for breakfast. He’s a big fan of the sausage-croissant combo. But he likes it a certain way: “No egg, well done on the sausage.”

McClendon said he’s never had much of a problem with this order. But imagine a world where Wendy’s knew McClendon didn’t want an egg just by looking at him.

Data collection is kind of where the industry is headed, including using tech to predict drive-thru habits, according to Eric Gonzalez, an analyst at KeyBanc, which provides investment-banking services to Wendy’s.

“They know your license plate number or they have your facial recognition so your previous orders [are] all loaded into the algorithm,” he said.

To be clear, none of those are things that Wendy’s or Google has talked about yet, but they already know what you want and when, Gonzalez said.

“You know, they say, ‘Well, this guy comes at 2:30 in the morning every Friday night. Maybe he wants the same thing he had last weekend,'” he said.

Wendy’s and other fast-food chains are trying out new tech for more pressing reasons: the labor shortage.

Consumers may be happier with a speedier drive-thru, said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But it comes with a cost.

“Over the last four decades, we have been investing more and more in automation, technologies, and that has been associated with much greater inequality,” he said.

Acemoglu doesn’t think Wendy’s will have anyone tending its drive-thrus in five years.

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