Yet another fast-casual chain turns to artificial intelligence (AI) for ordering solutions. Newk’s Eatery has partnered with San Francisco-based technology firm Kea to implement voice AI in its phone channels for to-go orders.

With natural language processing, Kea triages incoming calls, transcribes, upsells and confirms orders. Through its PCI-compliant system, the platform processes payments and sends orders directly to the restaurant POS. 

It takes the system about two weeks to learn a company’s menu and inventory and allows diners to customize their orders. 

In an interview with Food On Demand, Newk’s Eatery Information Technology Vice President Adam Karveller said the initiative arose from the need to repurpose labor amid the difficult staffing market restaurants face following the pandemic. 

“We noticed that there was an opportunity with our call-in business in particular, as we just didn’t have the staff that we once had in order to answer those calls in a quick, efficient and accurate manner,” said Karveller. “Sometimes calls were altogether ignored depending on the staffing of the restaurant and we were missing out on serving our customers.” 

Kea operates in all of Newk’s corporate locations and is expanding into its 100 franchised locations in 16 states across the U.S. this year. At one of these initial locations, Kea had 3,048 orders placed over the course of two weeks, which amounts to 182 hours worth of phone calls. 

For managers and staff, Karveller said they felt relief in not having to leave core duties during peak business hours to enter orders into the system. 

“We found that the orders were more accurate, guests were happier, and the guests were letting the management team know that they found it a lot easier to order with us than they did over the phone when it wasn’t digitized,” said Karveller. “It’s not often that somebody really loves to talk to a computer, no one wants to talk to those Comcast automated systems, so it [the response] was great.” 

But knowing that not all consumers are used to speaking with AI, Kea makes sure a human is always in the loop. Trained Kea agents are available on the backend if a customer asks to speak to someone or hangs up due to a misunderstanding or call failure. 

Looking ahead, Karveller expects Newk’s to eventually roll out more forms of AI, such as voice AI ordering in drive-thrus. 

Drive-thru AI continues to gain traction in the fast-casual space. In January, Mexican QSR-chain Del Taco deployed voice AI ordering in several of its 600 drive-thru locations with Presto Automation. 

“We also look at embedding voice ordering and accessibility into our ordering website and ordering app in the future, as well as voice ordering kiosks in the restaurant,” said Karveller. “We think these are all going to be very productive, user-friendly, automation processes for guests so that they can go at their own pace and do it interactively.”