KFC is exploring technology that would automate the process of ordering and upselling items in the drive-thru, according to an interview the chain’s U.S. Chief Technology Officer Christopher Caldwell did with Nation’s Restaurant News this week. KFC’s strategy looks to be focused on AI technology similar to that of McDonald’s, whose digital menu boards speed up ordering and automatically recommend items to customers.
The news comes on the heels of KFC’s little-publicized launch of an in-house online ordering platform, which happened earlier in October and is clearly part of a larger push from the Louisville, KY chain to increase efforts around the digital restaurant experience.
While Caldwell said the new native online ordering platform is “exceeding expectations” in terms of customer response, improving and innovating on the drive-thru is crucial for KFC.
That’s hardly surprising. Speed of service at the drive-thru in general has steadily gone down over the last decade, with the average time in 2019 a good 20 seconds longer than the previous year. But drive-thrus still account for a huge percentage of sales at QSR chains. For KFC, they account for about 65 percent of sales, according to Caldwell. Using automation in the drive through could potentially minimize both mistakes that happen during the order-taking process in the drive-thru as well as the length of time a customer spends waiting.
Caldwell also said drive-thru technology could bump up check averages thanks to better personalization and suggestive selling — one of the key benefits McDonald’s has been touting with the Dynamic Yield AI technology it’s rolled out to thousands of drive-thrus of late. He also hinted at license-plate recognition in the future, where the system can scan a customer’s plate and immediately suggest that person’s favorite meal.
A number of other QSRs are now testing new technologies and methods to speed up service in the drive-thru. Chains like Dunkin’, Krispy Kreme, and Chipotle are adding lanes for mobile-only orders. Sonic piloted AI-powered menu boards earlier this year. Meanwhile, companies like 5thru and Valyant AI are partnering with QSRs to automate more of the process through AI.
KFC hasn’t actually deployed any of this technology to actual stores yet, though Caldwell told NRN that “there’s going to be no shortage of [KFC] franchisees that want to adopt and be a test partner” when that finally happens.