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Google AI Will Take Your Drive-Thru Order at Wendy’s

Not much is said about how LLMs will impact retail work. We’re mostly consumed with the frightening outlook on automating knowledge work. But LLMs still pose a threat to the service industry. Not just customer service, either.

Wendy’s will open a new AI-powered drive-thru in Columbus, Ohio, in June. Wendy’s FreshAI will be powered by Google’s AI chatbot service. The chatbot will use voice recognition to take orders from customers. A human employee will monitor the service to ensure that it is working correctly. Customers will have the option to speak with a human if needed. Wendy's is not planning to replace existing workers with the technology. – The Verge

At one time, we thought that kiosks would replace most retail workers. A combination of physical tasks, complex social interactions, as well as customer preferences has proven to make automation slow at places like Kohls and McDonald’s. Other than at the airport, kiosk ordering hasn’t caught on anywhere in the US.

But in Japan, most restaurant interactions start with a kiosk. You place your order with a machine, pay, receive a ticket, and then hand it to the staff. Even checking out at stores like UNIQLO are all kiosk-based.

Culturally, they’re a little different. They don’t steal, so they don’t have a problem with retail shrinkage. They also don’t have drive-thrus since people don’t drive. But I still think they show us a glimpse of what’s to come with retail automation.

They have robo-restaurants and capsule hotels where all front-facing staff are robots. You don’t interact with any humans unless there’s a complex customer service request you need answered. However, robots are programmed to settle most qualms.

But if kiosk ordering isn't catching on in the US, then LLMs and avatars will. The avatar gives us a face to speak with and the LLM gives the avatar natural language. In due time, this combo will dominate the front-of-house for all retail and service work.

I think Wendy’s is taking the right approach. If they can figure out the front end and get the orders right with AI, then there’s no reason they can’t have a fully automated network of restaurants that could truly run 24/7 with max efficiency.

We already have fully autonomous robot restaurants piloting in San Francisco. These specialize in creating one meal with a few variations. And that’s exactly what most fast food is… No more than a dozen different ingredients organized in a bunch of different ways.

It may take some time to get the processes right. But I also don’t believe that fast food companies really care to fight against automation in their franchises. Today, it’s LLMs taking your order. Tomorrow, fast food restaurants become giant automated vending machines.