Panera Is Experimenting With Futuristic New Drive-Thrus

Drive-thrus were essential for many fast food and fast-casual restaurants during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when indoor dining areas were closed for business. Now they're shaping up as the vanguard of the industry. As Restaurant Business reports, drive-thrus are increasingly being used as the testing ground for new technologies, most notably regarding the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Which fast food or fast-casual restaurants are integrating AI technology? More of them than you might think. In 2021, for example, CNBC announced that McDonald's was working with IBM to advance artificial intelligence for its drive-thru service. According to The New York Times, Burger King was utilizing AI-inspired Deep Flame technology to update its drive-thru offerings. In February 2022, artificial intelligence in the form of a voice-operated order taker named Holly was introduced at 12 Checkers and Rally's drive-thru locations, according to Globe Newswire. The press release noted several reasons for the move, including increased efficiency, higher sales, and enhanced customer experiences.

Not all AI experimentation has been drive-thru related, of course. One of the more inventive uses of the emergent technology may have been by Panera Bread, which per Restaurant Business, used AI to test out a new robotic coffee brewing system. But make no mistake. Panera also has big AI plans for its drive-thrus, as it recently announced.

Panera introduces Tori, an AI order taker, at two locations

Panera is taking another step to embrace AI technology, albeit oed scale to start. According to QSR Magazine, Panera is teaming up with OpenCity to try out AI voice ordering technology at two of its drive-thru restaurants located in Rochester, New York. OpenCity is an AI-based company that created its own AI helper named Tori, will now be take orders and interact with customers at the two drive-thrus. Panera employees will be on hand, however, to take payments, hand out orders at the drive-thru windows, and deal with any potential technical glitches.

"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," noted Panera's COO, Debbie Roberts, to QSR Magazine.

The expectation is that the trial technology will go well, explains QSR Magazine, since Tori was also used at a Popeyes locLouisiana Lousiana earlier this year. Data from the restaurant showed that the incorporated technology wowed with its efficiency, showcasing significant upgrades in terms of speed, and had a near-perfect order-taking accuracy (99.9%). 

The Rochester trials are the latest in Panera's drive-thru efforts. In June, the company announced via Business Wire that it was opening three to-go-only locations (called Panera To-Go) this year, with no indoor dining and exclusively utilizing digital order taking. As of 2022, 44% of all Panera locations include drive-thru service.