A Panera Bread location in Spring Hill, Florida.
Jeff Greenberg | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
Starting Monday, drive-thru customers at two Panera Bread locations in upstate New York will have their orders computer-recorded in a test of artificial intelligence technology’s accuracy and ability to reduce service times.
The sandwich chain is the latest restaurant company to invest in potential improvements to the drive-thru experience. A wave of drive-thru orders during the Covid pandemic led to long lines of cars around restaurants, forcing chains to focus on speed of service and accuracy of orders.
For example, McDonald’s has also been working on the automation of its drive-thru track, and last year announced a partnership with IBM to work toward that goal. Yum Brands’ Taco Bell and Restaurant Brands International’s Burger King have built dual drive-thru lanes in some locations to allow customers to pick up their digital orders faster. Fast-casual chains like Shake Shack and Sweetgreen, which once struggled with drive-thru lanes, have added them.
Panera Bread uses OpenCity’s voice ordering technology called Tori. The start-up has raised $6.82 million from private investors, giving the company a valuation of $26.82 million, according to Pitchbook. To date, the technology is being used by more than two dozen restaurants, including at least one Popeyes location in Louisiana, according to the OpenCity website.
The financial terms of Panera’s agreement with OpenCity have not been disclosed.
At Panera, customers will interact with Tori when they go to the drive-thru speaker. Panera employees will be on standby to provide assistance and pay for orders.
The test will be used to evaluate whether Tori should be expanded to more Panera restaurants, Panera’s director of operations, Debbie Roberts, said in a statement. About 45% of Panera’s more than 2,000 locations have drive-in lanes.
Panera has already tinkered with using automation to improve the customer experience. Earlier this year, it announced a test of Miso Robotics’ CookRight Coffee system, which uses artificial intelligence to monitor coffee volume and temperature.
Panera has been privately owned since 2017, when JAB Holding bought the company for $7.5 billion. The chain has continued to invest in technology, drive digital sales and maintain its reputation as a leader in the restaurant industry. Earlier this summer, citing market conditions, it canceled a planned deal with restaurateur Danny Meyer’s investment group that would have helped it return to the stock market.