Two phrases are getting a lot of airplay in the food industry nowadays: “artificial intelligence” and “personalized menus.” Put them together and you’re supposed to get a restaurant experience where customers see menu choices based on their specific needs and restaurants earns bigger tickets because they’re selling items people actually want to eat. Or can eat, for that matter.
Scott Sanchez, founder and CEO of THE.FIT, calls this “dietary optimization,” and it’s the guiding principle behind his company and the tech it makes and sells to restaurants.
THE.FIT bills itself as “a menu personalization engine” that provides restaurant menus based on a customer’s individual dietary needs (or preferences). To do that, THE.FIT uses AI to ingest a restaurant’s menu and nutritional information into its system, then validate that information against specific criteria (e.g., steak is OK for Keto) to better match foods with customers’ needs. In offering this more personalized food experience, a restaurant can increase its ticket sizes and, hopefully, overall margins, because it’s offering customers a more satisfying restaurant experience.
Sanchez, who is very open about his own struggles with fitness and weight loss, got the idea for THE.FIT after experiencing his own frustrations with finding meals he could eat out that also matched his dietary needs for his fitness program. “It’s this stress and anxiety that would often keep me home so that I didn’t have to deal with that,” he told me over the phone this week.
Seeing no existing fix to this problem, he decided to create software that would address the challenge of sticking with your diet while still enjoying a meal out with friends or family.
For customers, using THE.FIT’s tech to do that is a very simple process. You simply use your phone to scan a QR code on the restaurant menu, then select your dietary preferences. THE.FIT matches your preferences with the information in its system and uses it to generate a version of the restaurant’s menu.
For example, if someone on a Keto diet goes to a Mexican restaurant, the menu can suggest a burrito bowl with no rice and no beans. The system will already know a) what someone on a Keto diet can or cannot eat and b) the ingredients of each dish on a restaurant’s menu and. Using AI features, the system can adjust the menu accordingly. These preferences can be saved in the system so that they automatically come up on the guest’s next visit.
Right now this is a partially automated process, and also relies partially on expertise from dietitians and other food professionals. In future, Sanchez says the system will be able to act in accordance with true AI and learn information itself.
THE.FIT comes as a few different integrations for restaurants. In its simplest form, the technology is simply menus and signage that include the QR code and costs restaurants $100/month.
The company’s SaaS offering is where things get interesting, though. THE.FIT’s system can integrate with existing hardware and software in the restaurant, like native mobile apps, self-serve kiosks, and POS systems. Sanchez said the company is in talks with major POS vendors who would like to see THE.FIT more intimately integrated with their technology.
The hope is that improving the guest experience will help restaurants improve their razor-thin margins. Sanchez walked me through an example of what this might look like: If a user is eating a low-carb diet and wants a burger, the obvious choice would be to offer it without the bread. But instead of simply offering a “no bun” option, THE.FIT’s AI capabilities could offer an upsell, say, a bed of spinach for the burger for an extra $2. The cost of providing that spinach, according to Sanchez, doesn’t really go up, but it provides a 95 percent profit margin in the process. And it’s hopefully making the customer happier.
Using AI to personalize the restaurant experience is only going to get bigger as a topic. Most notably, McDonald’s introduced it to the drive-thru earlier this year when it acquired AI company Dynamic Yield; over 700 McDonald’s locations now use Dynamic Yield’s tech to make real-time recommendations to customers based on external data (e.g., the weather). And just earlier this week, a company called Clinc announced a Series B round that will help the company take its tech into new markets, including the restaurant industry.
However, as The Spoon’s Mike Wolf pointed out recently, there’s personalized and then there’s personalization. Imagine a future where, “instead of getting just an updated list of food based on what’s trending that day or if it’s hot or cold outside, you would get a menu that was created specifically based on your taste profile, biomarkers, allergies and more. This menu would be an entirely new thing to the world, something made for you and your unique characteristics.”
That’s a future THE.FIT seems to be headed towards. And while Sanchez says it’s not quite there yet — the system still relies on dietary experts and other food professionals to make decisions — we’re not that far away, either. “As we get dozens and thousands of restaurants to input, the system will start to make those characterizations itself. The way our system operates in a year will be very different.”
Right now The.FIT is working on pilot programs with a number of different restaurants. Sanchez can’t call anyone out by name yet, but assured me that would change over the next few months.