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Wendy's testing new drive-thru AI technology in Columbus

A Wendy's drive thru features its new Artificial Intelligence ordering service called "Fresh AI."
George Shillcock
Wendy's is testing a new artificial intelligence ordering service at several drive-thru locations in the Columbus area.

Wendy's is testing new artificial intelligence technology through GoogleCloud at several drive-thru locations in the Columbus area, hoping to improve order speed and accuracy.

The AI takes your order almost immediately when you pull up at the drive-thru and then hands it off to the workers inside to complete.

On Monday, WOSU went to the location at 3040 Northwest Boulevard in Upper Arlington and placed four orders.

The first order was a Baconator meal with medium fries and a Coke. The AI processed the order correctly word for word and it was displayed on the screen.

The second order was for a Double Stack Biggie Bag with a Coca-Cola and barbecue sauce for the chicken nuggets. The AI struggled at first when a "coke" was ordered, but correctly processed the full name "Coca-Cola."

The third order was for a Dave's Single burger with no cheese and extra pickles. The AI initially struggled to understand, but the order did end up being correct.

The fourth order was for a double hamburger with only ketchup and medium french fries. This order was placed on a separate check and because of this, a human from inside the restaurant took over to take the order.

WOSU spoke to Wendy's Chief Information Officer Kevin Vasconi about the new technology and what the company has seen from it so far. He said the AI technology is now in four Columbus locations, and will launch in a fifth one this week. The company plans to expand to more Columbus locations and in another test market in Florida on a future date.

The other current Columbus locations where the AI technology is being used include:

  • 5771 Maxtown Road in Westerville
  • 1851 W. Henderson Road in Columbus
  • 1600 Georgesville Square in Columbus

Vasconi said the technology is more accurate than humans and it saves an average of 22 seconds on orders at the Westerville location. He said that difference may not seem like a lot to an outside observer, but the difference is huge for the staff inside the restaurant during a rush or the customers waiting in line.
"There's no pause when you pull up to the speaker box. The AI agent is on. It's not on break. And that helps also in terms of making the order cycle faster for the consumer," Vasconi said.

Vasconi said its important for both the crew and the consumers to embrace the technology in order for it to work. He said customers are embracing the change, and while the crew isn't completely in love with the technology they are "endorsing it."

Wendy's isn't the only fast food restaurant chain getting into the AI business. Other companies like White Castle and McDonald's are also testing the technology.

Wendy's said in a press release that it also measured the accuracy of orders. It said that 86% of orders turn out accurate on average, but some samplings are exceeding 90% accuracy.

Vasconi said the AI will get smarter and smarter, which it does through repetition and accuracy is predicted to increase.

"Some of these orders can be pretty complex, right? I want extra pickles and I want light mayonnaise. And (that is) an interesting challenge from a technology standpoint, because not everybody would order that the same way," Vasconi said.

The company statement said accuracy increased to 99% when a crew member steps in to complete the order, due to it being too complicated or a customer requesting to speak to a real person.

Vasconi said he can't speak to whether AI in wider society will lead to certain jobs being eliminated, but he said the company hasn't eliminated any jobs at the locations where the AI is in use and the company isn't focused on saving money on labor. He said eliminating open positions because of the AI is not in the company's plans.

"The business problem we're trying to solve is speed and accuracy, and we build the human into the process," Vasconi said.

Wendy's is headquartered in Dublin, but was founded in Columbus in 1969. Vasconi said this makes the area a great place to test the technology.

"Our headquarters is here. I've got a big technology team here. So not only is it a good market from a piloting standpoint, but I think for the Wendy's company and actually the Chipotle folks too, we've got people ... that work here," Vasconi said.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.