Why you should care
These menus could fundamentally transform the ordering experience at restaurants.
Scott Sanchez used to have a hard time deciding what to eat, especially when he was traveling. The 42-year-old wanted to lose weight and found he needed to dissect a menu with the waiter before he could order. It was a challenge, he says, but one that gave birth to The Fit, a menu personalization platform that uses artificial intelligence to give restaurant brands and their customers the option to customize their menu and food choices.
At least 32 million Americans — including 5 million children — have food allergies, according to nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. Whenever they eat out, they need to make sure there are no ingredients in the food that could trigger an allergic reaction. Those with dietary preferences, from vegans to people wanting to lose weight — there are 93 million obese people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — also need to carefully examine menus. That’s where The Fit, launched in May, comes in.
And The Fit is far from alone. A growing number of firms are promising personalized menus and restaurant experiences to customers, and major fast-food chains are turning to these services. Here’s how it works: You arrive at the drive-through restaurant, where you’re greeted by an AI-powered voice-ordering assistant and a personalized menu that could be different for you and the friends you’re with, based on any food allergies you might have, what you’ve ordered at the restaurant in the past, the temperature and the time of the day — moving iced tea over hot coffee in the order if it’s a sultry day, for instance.
In March, McDonald’s announced it is buying Israeli startup Dynamic Yield — which develops AI-driven personalized menus for customers — for $300 million. In May, Mastercard and Zivelo, a self-service kiosk technology firm, announced their AI-powered voice assistant and personalized menu systems. The companies are preparing to roll out the technology with partner restaurants. In February, AI firm Valyant AI announced an AI-based conversational customer service platform for restaurants. While it won’t provide personalized menus, it will serve as an AI-driven waiter, offering suggestions based on your questions, freeing up human waiters for other tasks and helping cover in scenarios where staff doesn’t show up.
Frankly, it is better than human beings.
Scott Sanchez, founder, The Fit
The biggies in AI are entering the space too. Last October, Amazon Alexa announced an investment in New York-based restaurant reservations tech firm SevenRooms, to develop a version of Alexa specifically catering to the needs of restaurants.
“We are seeing more and more restaurants implementing this type of technology,” says Sanchez. “Frankly, it is better than human beings,”
That doesn’t mean AI-powered menus will replace workers — waiters will still be needed at sit-down restaurants to serve meals, and kitchen staffers remain essential. But if robot waiters — a nascent concept being explored in the West and in developing nations such as Nepal — catch on, they could combine with AI-driven menus to reduce the need for human waiters. That’s still some time away, but AI-powered menus face another limitation in the here and now. At sit-down restaurants, particularly at fine-dining ones, having a waiter personally attend to you and help you select what to eat is part of the experience patrons look forward to. Such restaurants are unlikely to switch to AI menus.
But for fast-food chains, especially drive-in and drive-through ones, AI-optimized menus could prove a game-changer, argues Sanchez. “At a fast-casual type of restaurant, say a Chipotle, where they are trying to move as many customers in a line, [personalized menus] help the restaurant turn over more tables and with less staff,” he says.
It makes sense, then, for McDonald’s to invest in this technology. But it isn’t only about efficiency. For people watching their weight, for example, AI-optimized menus might suggest ordering the hamburger without the cheese; at the same time, keeping the restaurant’s margin in mind, it might suggest adding avocado for an additional $2.
It’s a trend already expanding beyond the United States. Singapore-based TabSquare provides AI-powered solutions to at least 300 restaurants in the Asia-Pacific region. It recently raised $10 million in funding. Such menus are the future, insists Chirag Tejuja, one of the co-founders of TabSquare, which has offices in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. “Customers … want to save time,” he says. “Twenty years ago, at a restaurant, your only source of recommendations was the waiter. Today you have recommendations at your fingertips. It saves everyone time.”