McDonald’s Acquires Voice Startup Apprente to Build Drive-Thrus With Voice Assistants

McDonald’s is acquiring voice tech startup Apprente to boost its plans for voice assistant-powered drive-thrus. The Apprente team will help found McD Labs, a new research and development lab for McDonald’s based in Silicon Valley. The acquisition is another sign that McDonald’s and other quick service restaurants (QSR) are keen to test out the potential of voice technology in their businesses.

Big Mac Drive-Thru Assistant

Apprente’s technology is designed for understanding and conversing with people ordering food and other items. McDonald’s has been using  Apprente’s voice platform, in field tests around Chicago for months.

McDonald’s and Apprente did not disclose the financial details of the acquisition in their announcement. Apprente is a relatively young company, founded in 2017 and has around 15 full-time staff listed on LinkedIn. According to Pitchbook, Apprente raised $4.75 million in a seed round in the summer of 2017 led by Point72 Ventures with participation from AME Cloud Ventures, Greylock Partners, Morado Venture Partners, and others.

The Voice of Drive-Thru

McDonald’s acquiring Apprente sends a signal to the industry as a whole that voice assistants at drive-thrus is more than just a passing fad. McDonald’s is the largest name in this space, so its decision to integrate voice tech into drive-thrus will encourage all of its rivals to do the same. QSRs, which often have trouble maintaining staff, make a good testbed for operational AI.

“It takes a minute to customize a single meal from a McDonalds kiosk and 4 seconds to say it.  So, we’ve long believed that voice AI has a role in improving the customer experience and this acquisition is great validation,” said Chas Sweeting, CEO of food-specific natural language understanding company “Between the drive-through, call center, and retail, voice is still the primary mode of ordering food for most fast food brands and voice automation with AI is inevitable.”

Voices Are Spreading

Some restaurants are already on top of the tech. Denver’s Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard added a voice assistant created by Valyant AI to one of its drive-thrus earlier this year. The success of that pilot has encouraged the restaurant to add the technology to new locations. Even before McDonald’s acquired Apprente, their tests were leading to interest in the idea, Valyant CEO Rob Carpenter told Voicebot at the time.

Voice looks like it will play a central role in McDonald’s future tech strategy. Apprente’s team, based in Silicon Valley, is ideally placed for McDonald’s as it puts together McD Labs. While Apprente’s team will be part of the founding group, McDonald’s says it plans to bring in more engineers and tech developers to explore new ways of enhancing its services.

Todd Mozer, CEO of Sensory commented, “Machine intelligence is entering every segment of business, and for McDonalds to have a McD Tech Labs is not only forward-thinking but a current necessity… Acquiring a group of talented engineers with hands-on experience is a smart way to supercharge and direct their new labs. Moving towards self-service through voice where intelligent assistants can collect key analytic information is the right way to go, and many quick service restaurants, order-ahead apps, and kiosk-based services will be following suit.”

Doubling Down on AI

Apprente isn’t the fast-food giant’s only startup acquisition of late. In March, the company acquired AI firm Dynamic Yield, whose software is able to suggest drive-thru menu items based on data like weather, traffic, and what’s been popular. The company has even experimented with robot kitchens to make the food.

Cost is still going to be a concern, at least in the short-term. The savings have to be made up after paying for the initial installation, not to mention developing the technology to a point where it’s basically foolproof. Still, it may just be a matter of time until you can pull up to a drive-thru, discuss what the voice assistant recommends before placing the order with the AI, which then cooks and hands over the meal without any human involvement at all.


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