From self-service kiosks to mobile apps to dedicated pickup shelves and portals, there’s no end to new tech trying to speed up the order-pay-collect process for customers at QSRs.
But if the last week has made anything clear, it’s that while those pieces certainly play a role in the future of the restaurant, the drive thru is still the most important area of growth — at least for fast-food. Even as Minneapolis tries to ban drive thrus, companies are pumping enormous amounts of money and energy into improving this area, most notably with last week’s news that McDonald’s, king of all QSRs, had acquired voice-tech company Apprente. It’s the second acquisition Mickey D’s has made in 2019 of a technology company whose offerings can speed up lagging drive-thru lines and move more customers in less time. In March, the mega chain acquired a company called Dynamic Yield and has since installed its AI tech in thousands of McDonald’s drive thrus to make the order experience more personalized for customers.
Others aren’t sitting still. In 2019 alone, Dunkin’ has expanded its “Next Generation” store, which features dedicated drive-thru lanes for mobile orders, to other parts of the U.S.; KFC started testing a drive-thru-only concept in Australia; and a slew of new tech companies have emerged offering various digital and AI-powered tools to take orders at the drive thru.
It’s not hard to understand why. As of last check, drive thrus still make up over 50 percent (in some cases closer to two thirds) of all orders for many QSRs. At the same time, bigger menus and more disjointed pieces of tech in the restaurant space have slowed down the order process and made wait times in drive-thru lanes longer. As Apprente CEO Itamar Arel, Ph.D., said back in 2018, “Fast food is not always fast and bottlenecks at ordering stations result in lost sales.” McDonald’s and others can’t afford those lost sales, so anything — whether an extra lane or a full-on tech makeover — to move people through the line faster could give QSRs an edge in the rising competition. You can bet there will be plenty more news from the drive-thru lane as more major QSRs revamp to take a page from McDonald’s playbook and reinvent themselves with tech.
Weeding Out the Labor Shortage Problem
The drive-thru isn’t the only area the food world is looking to speed up production. This week a company called FarmWise raised $14.5 million for its self-driving robots that remove weeds from crops without the need for herbicides or pesticides. (We expect these machines will be able to do much more than pull weeds in future, too.)
For the agtech world, machines like these not only save time, they also pick up the slack left by a major labor shortage in farm production. Farmers and ranchers in the U.S. say this labor shortage is the most limiting factor they face on their farms, and it’s not one that looks like it’ll be solved any time soon.
Hence, the robots. Every farm in America won’t have autonomous bots to pick weeds and harvest produce at the snap of a finger, but these machines are an increasingly appealing solution to the labor issue. Robots don’t need breaks, can work in sweltering heat and humidity, and in some cases can work faster than a human. As we look to solutions for both farm labor and wasted crops on the farm, these bots hold many possibilities.
Meanwhile, someone wants to reinvent decaf coffee.
Decafino, a startup based out of Seattle, launched a Kickstarter campaign today for a tea bag-like product it claims can remove caffeine from any cup of brewed coffee. As my colleague Catherine Lamb detailed, the biodegradable pouch can be dropped in a cup of coffee (or caffeinated soda, for that matter), and within three to four minutes will remove the caffeine from the beverage.
If the product does as it claims, it could open up many more options for decaf coffee drinkers, who often face very limited selections at stores and coffee shops, and in some cases no options at all.
Personally, I’d have to be told I needed triple bypass surgery to stop drinking caffeinated coffee, and no doubt that day will come. In the meantime, there are plenty of folks out there who love the taste of coffee but for health reasons cannot drink the real thing. If Decafino is successful, these people might find a whole new world of drink choices.