Danny Meyer Claims AI and Human Hospitality Can Peacefully Coexist

Whether you’ve worked at a restaurant or lost your coat check ticket, there’s artificial intelligence for that.

Tech Week

Courtesy of IBM

On day two of NYC #TechWeek, Union Square Hospitality Group founder Danny Meyer and IBM senior vice president of software and chief commercial officer Rob Thomas sit against a backdrop of a cloudy and gray Manhattan skyline, 60 stories above the street in USHG's Manhatta restaurant. The two are engaged in a dialogue about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in the restaurant industry amid an audience of tech professionals. The atmosphere is open and hopeful rather than the fearful and skeptical conversations often surrounding the subject.

Thomas shares learnings from testing Automated Order Taking (AOT) technology at hundreds of McDonald’s drive-thrus around the world, and Meyer predicts the three areas where AI can positively impact any food service business: labor, efficiency, and customization.

He makes the case that AI can help on both sides of hiring: Restaurants can identify candidates with the right qualifications and employees can anticipate what the hiring company is seeking. USHG is well-known for its focus on HR — Meyers authored the New York Times bestseller Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business and USHG’s Hospitality Quotient arm fosters leadership development for hospitality businesses in any field, from restaurants to travel and retail. Meyers evangelizes that customers can feel the energy of humans who like their workplace.

Which brings the conversation around to efficiency. AI can apply data on diners’ ordering habits to inventory for accuracy, streamlining back office operations. In the front of house, AI can improve interactions with customers that have long presented challenges, like taking orders while wearing a headset, so employees can focus on the human aspects of hospitality.

"Any great tech should enhance human touch, and hospitality is all about human touch," Meyer says of the notion that AI is impersonal. "The one thing that AI cannot do is look you in the eye and smile and make you feel seen in the human body language kind of way."

Meyer was an investor and board member at the pioneering reservations platform OpenTable in the '90s, which opened his mind to the possibilities of tech enhancing restaurant operations. Today USHG uses 7shifts software to schedule employees, tech that accounts for weather and traffic with real-time communication to fill shifts, as well as three reservation platforms: OpenTable, Resy, and SevenRooms.

"You want to be recognized when you go to a restaurant," Meyers acknowledges. "What if the person can welcome you back by name and make you know that we expected you?"

That AI may go as far as tracking license plates in drive-thrus to suggest and upsell orders for repeat customers.

"It's not just when you're placing the order, but you need somebody that actually shows up to work on time to take the order; you need it to be accurate," Thomas adds. IBM’s AOT accounts for accents, languages, and ambient noise to perfect automated ordering accuracy at McDonald’s. Food & Wine reported 80% accuracy when 10 Chicago locations tested AI in place of humans for drive-thru ordering.

"It's one way of bringing technology to an industry that's probably been somewhat underserved by it."

Likewise, Meyer is invested in ConverseNow — another kind of voice AI — to bring automated ordering to concepts like Shake Shack.

"If AI can help us to increase our revenue because we can know more about who people are, how they like to spend, and market the right things to the right people, that's incredible," he says. He adds that data on what customers order can help segment marketing, like only emailing customers who drink wine about a corkage fee promotion, which is a use case USHG learned the hard way.

"What if we could actually use technology to predict when your meal's going to be done to get your coat ready?" Meyer asks, indicating his desire to eliminate the coat check number we all often lose.

Perhaps most compelling is Meyer divulging that USHG will introduce contactless payment soon so diners can leave after a meal as easily as we exit a ride share, eliminating the perennial table-clearing prompt, “Are we still working on that?”

That’s technology we’re not quite finished chewing on yet.

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