Tech Talk: How AI Is Serving the Restaurant Industry


As the Chief Revenue Officer at HungerRush, Olivier Thierry is influencing customer expectations with AI as the restaurant industry has begun experimenting with it, he tells Spiceworks News & Insights’ Technology Editor, Neha Kulkarni. Restaurants have realized taking on new technology will help them not only survive the challenges but achieve results, he notes.

From labor shortages to improving customer experience, in this edition of Tech Talk, Olivier discusses how AI can overcome these challenges and allow restaurants to reduce human error. He also shares how natural language processing can interpret customer attitudes in phone orders and have a real place in understanding customer experience.

Key Points:

  • Large fast casual chains have turned to utilizing AI in drive-through
  • AI can re-order previous orders with knowledge of each customer’s personal preferences
  • AI solutions can also understand heavy accents, SMS shorthand and regional slangs

Here are the edited excerpts from our exclusive interview with Olivier Thierry, chief revenue officer, HungerRush:


Olivier Thierry, CRO, HungerRush

SWNI: It has been a busy year for the restaurant industry especially after the pause during the pandemic. But as the pandemic clouds begin to move away, how are technologies such as artificial intelligence changing the future of restaurants?

Olivier: The pandemic turned the restaurant industry upside down, and many of its setbacks are still being felt today. During the pandemic, restaurants were struggling with unforeseen lockdowns as well as new regulations and restrictions from guest capacity to food preparation. In fact, the National Restaurant Association reported that the restaurant industry suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 outbreak began compared to any other industry. More than 8 million restaurant employees were laid off or furloughed, and the industry lost $280 billion in sales during the first 13 months of the pandemic.

“As we continue moving toward a post-pandemic way of life, many of these pain points have evolved into longer-term issues. Labor shortages, rising food prices, changing consumer expectations, and even leftover debt all still plague restaurants today. As a result, the industry, which has been historically slow to adopt new technology, has begun experimenting with AI and relying on the technology to combat these issues.”

Restaurants have realized taking on new technology will help them not only survive these challenges but achieve results that they haven’t been able to before. For example, several large fast casual chains have turned to utilizing AI in drive-through, phone ordering systems and even integrating it into the kitchen to help restock items. When technology finds a way to step in and alleviate the stressors that workers have, we find a world where employees and technology can coexist. When workers aren’t as absorbed in restocking, taking orders and assisting in drive-thru lanes they can focus on the customer experience and in-store customers. AI has quickly become essential, and the pandemic accelerated a technological revolution that has propelled restaurants into the future.

See More: Why Natural Language Processing Will Steer the AI Ship: Experts’ Take

SWNI: From talent shortages to customer experience, the restaurant industry is facing unprecedented challenges in the post-pandemic era. In your opinion, how AI can overcome these challenges and allow restaurants to reduce human error?

Olivier: Labor shortages have become one of the biggest strains on every industry since the pandemic, however, the restaurant industry was hit the hardest. According to the National Restaurant Association, 65% of restaurant operators surveyed said they don’t have enough employees to support customer demand. As a result, 60% of US restaurants have reduced hours of operation, while 38% are closed on days they would normally be open. Having to make such drastic adjustments has had direct impact on employee welfare, bandwidth and leaving guests to feel unwelcome.

“AI has emerged as a way for restaurants to mitigate these shortages while improving employee and customer experiences. For example, some restaurants with high volume of phone orders, like pizza restaurants, have begun implementing AI-powered phone bots to handle orders placed over the phone or via text message. For orders placed over the phone, the AI can understand and place customizable orders through payment and completion.”

Orders placed via text, AI can offer the option to re-order previous orders with knowledge of each customer’s personal preferences and customizations. Reduction in human error is a benefit of this technology, as the bots can understand multiple speakers, heavy accents, and slang. And since these bots aren’t limited to human inefficiencies, they never get sick, have a bad day, or reach a call limit.

See More: Tech Talk: How ServiceNow Is Scaling Robotic Process Automation at Speed

SWNI: Let’s talk about natural language processing models. Several surveys have found that sarcasm or code-switching don’t work well with today’s NLP engines. How can NLP be used to interpret customer attitudes in phone orders and have a real place in the restaurants’ customer experience?

Olivier: As with other NLP solutions, the trick is exposure to large, diverse sets of data. By exposing the AI to varying speakers and commands, the AI uses deep learning and machine learning to augment its intelligence over time by processing real-time data. In addition, it’s essential to integrate the AI with the full extent of a menu and the restaurant software to guarantee knowledge of all possible orders.

With this understanding, the AI will recognize more and more vocal styles and varying orders. As mentioned previously, today’s AI solutions can also understand heavy accents, SMS shorthand and regional slangs and colloquialisms, and multiple speakers. In addition, AI can sense when the customer is getting frustrated and will offer to switch to a live person who can take over the situation.

“Luckily, interpreting commands from an order placed off a menu is more straightforward than a lot of other industries leveraging AI where interpreting sarcasm and code-switching is more necessary and commonplace. However, it’s always a good idea to give your guests an option to speak to a human employee in case of their personal preference or discomfort with the technology.”

SWNI: Another factor for restaurants to consider is investment in AI is a costly affair. How can the restaurant industry assess the need to invest in AI to improve customer experience and measure the ROI from AI investments?

Olivier: If operators are looking for a way to modernize restaurants, I truly believe AI has the best value when it comes to investing in technology that is futuristic but still delivers ROI across multiple needs. Many restaurants we see today are investing in flashy chip-making robots and other eye-catching tech, but AI can supplement everything from marketing to order-taking to improving customer experience. When done correctly, it can have much more of an effect on the entire restaurant than something such as a kitchen robot.

For example, order-taking AI can handle multiple phone lines and ensure no customer is left on hold, confirming those orders get placed. Beyond that, AI can also be programmed to upsell every order.

“On the texting side, the AI can send scheduled text messages to customers encouraging repeat orders with the click of a button. It can also send out coupons and promotional deals to increase brand awareness and ensure your restaurant stays top of mind.”

Further, by relieving employees from the task of manning phones, AI allows employees to spend more time on reassigned to table service, delivery, or order fulfillment, ensuring customers are satisfied and quality of service optimal.

See More: How Spotify’s Voice Recognition Device Is Making In-Car Listening Better

SWNI: There is an ongoing debate over crucial aspects of AI performance, including bias, ethics, and overall control. How can the AI community make progress toward securing an unbiased regulatory framework?

Olivier: To ensure data is unbiased, data scientists must operate with heavy scrutiny of the data to ensure it’s an unbiased equivalent to real-life.

“Continuous testing of the data is essential to ensure all biases are caught and addressed before the algorithm is unleashed to the public.”

Moreover, there must be a standardized framework to ensure the ethical models to which we hold the data to are unbiased. Careful monitoring, diverse data teams, and increased transparency of training processes can all help combat biased AI.

See More: How TripAdvisor Is Leveraging Voice Technology To Boost Business: Q&A With Christine Maguire

SWNI: As the technology paradigm continues to shift rapidly, which AI investments will help restaurants to improve their customer experience and orders in 2023 and beyond?

Olivier: There’s a lot of places where restaurant AI can go from here! It’s already happening, but I believe we’ll see AI more widely integrated into holistic operations, from managing inventory to counting orders, tracking customers in real-time, and monitoring the number of people at dining tables.

“With computer vision, AI can also be used to monitoring the hygiene of the dining area, or the condition of kitchen equipment.”

We may also see use of AI at ordering kiosks that leverage voice technology and NLP like the phone ordering solutions. The possibilities are endless, and it’s truly exciting to see where the industry will take its innovation next.

About Olivier ThierryOpens a new window
Olivier Thierry serves as the chief revenue officer for HungerRush. Olivier has a distinguished career of executive leadership positions in several successful technology corporations. Prior to HungerRush, Olivier served as CMO for Quorum Software, CMO at Zimbra, CEO of Fiveruns, and CMO at Zenoss.

About HungerRushOpens a new window

HungerRush 360 transforms your restaurant, chain or concept, managing your entire operation from a single dashboard, improves efficiency, gains greater visibility, uses valuable data insights to accelerate sales and increase loyalty, boosts revenues and lowers costs. As a technology-driven support system for your restaurant, we make sure all solutions provided are the latest in the tech market, constantly refined and updated.

About Tech Talk

Tech Talk is an interview series that features notable CTOs and senior technology executives from around the world. Join us as we talk to these technology and IT leaders who share their insights and research on data, analytics, and emerging technologies. If you are a tech expert and wish to share your thoughts, write to [email protected]Opens a new window

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