Denver Startup Brings Voice Assistant Tech to Drive-Thru Can Soon Replace Human Roles

An AI-powered voice assistant is taking orders from hungry visitors to the drive-thru of one of Denver’s Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard. Valyant AI started testing the system at the Good Burger in January, but only for breakfast. The success of that pilot led to the recent expansion to lunch and dinner a few weeks ago.

For many years, we have witnessed call center staff first being augmented and then replaced by AI systems driven by automated speech recognition and natural language understanding. Recent advances in these technologies are now creating the option to move AI-based assistants out of the call center and into operational roles in other settings. The drive-thru has quickly become a hotbed of activity in part because many fast food restaurants are struggling to staff their operations.

Order Up Courtesy of Voice AI

“We’ve had an amazing response,” Valyant CEO  Rob Carpenter told Voicebot in an interview. “In a survey we gave people [after going through the drive-thru], 92 percent said it exceeded their expectations.”

When customers speak to the AI, it behaves as a human operator would, but more efficiently, Carpenter explained. The restaurant saw a ten percent drop in the average time it took for customers to go from pulling up to the speaker to driving away with their food, an average decreased wait time of seven seconds. That’s not really a lot in terms of individual experience, but it adds up over the course of a day or week.

“Speed and service are the most important metrics for a restaurant,” Carpenter said. “We had to make sure they weren’t losing revenue [by installing the AI].

To build the AI’s responses, Valyant used actual recordings of customers talking to the drive-thru operator. As the program continues to run, it continuously applies the new conversations it has with customers to improve its interactions.

Shaking Up Drive-thru Staffing

Of course, no AI system can be flawless all of the time. The restaurant has a human backing up the program right now to make sure that it gets the order right.

“It’s not perfect yet, having a human there is still critical, but we plan to phase them out over the next year,” Carpenter said. “Any AI program lives or dies on the amount of data it ingests, and we are collecting more all of the time.”

For restaurant use, one tricky element is new menu items or those that aren’t ordered often enough for the AI to immediately recognize what someone is saying. Valyant’s system doesn’t make mistakes about burgers and shakes, but other orders can confuse it, Carpenter said.

“People ordering jalapeño, that one created some challenges for our system,” he explained. “It’s critical to train the machine for new items too. It’s hard to learn if it’s never heard it before.”

Good Times Roll

Valyant is continuing to refine and improve what the AI can do. This week it upgraded the software to be able to upsell customers and make recommendations based on the time of day and what they’ve already ordered, among other factors.

The efficiency of the AI and the positive response from customers has convinced the owner of Good Times to roll it out across the chain over the next year or so, Carpenter said. And, there are some more big names in the industry signing on, although he couldn’t say who yet. In part, that’s a reflection of the growing interest in applying voice AI to drive-thrus, such as McDonald’s current experiment with the technology.

“The McDonald’s news really helped actually,” Carpenter said. “Other clients are being spurred on by McDonald’s [testing voice AI].”


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