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Wendy’s To Begin Replacing Drive-thru Staff With Google-powered AI Chatbot

Following Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) lockdown measures and social distancing mandates, Wendy's takes 80 percent of its restaurant orders at the drive-thru.
Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: May 10, 2023
Wendy's will begin replacing human drive-thru employees with a Google-powered AI chatbot in June at a Columbus occasion.
A file photo of a Wendy’s in New York City in August of 2020. The company has developed a generative AI chatbot in collaboration with Google to take orders at drive-thrus in place of human employees. Starting in June at a location in Columbus, Wendy’s will trial the software. (Image: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Fast food chain Wendy’s will begin replacing drive-thru staff at some locations with a new artificial intelligence chatbot trained with Google starting in June.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news in a May 9 exclusive where CEO Todd Penegor was paraphrased as claiming, “The goal is to streamline the ordering process and prevent long lines in the drive-through lanes from turning customers away.”


The company was also paraphrased as telling WSJ that it had worked with Google “in areas like data analytics, machine learning and cloud tools” since at least 2021.

Penegor poses the chatbot as a “very conversational” boon to customers, which will perform far better than the often infuriating telephone service and helpline voice recognition automated assistants. 

“You won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee,” said Pengor.

The article states that Wendy’s engineers have been working with Google to create “a generative AI application” built on top of the Silicon Valley giant’s large language model, a kind of voice recognition and speaking software in a similar vein to OpenAI’s text-based and widely recognized ChatGPT.

Trained to recognize Wendy’s-specific terms like “JBC” (Junior Bacon Cheeseburger) or “Frosties” (ice cream/milkshakes), CEO of Google Cloud, Thomas Kurian, told WSJ that having the bot be properly effective is a daunting task.

“You may think driving by and speaking into a drive-through is an easy problem for AI, but it’s actually one of the hardest,” Kurian stated.

Kurian was paraphrased as explaining that “there can be a lot of extraneous noise in a family car, such as music or children in the back seat” the AI has to be trained to parse, in addition to accents, ways of speaking, and being able to handle when a customer changes their mind.

Starting in June, Wendy’s will trial the software at a location in Columbus, Ohio.

For executives, the usage of a machine to take orders has some benefits in that it will always push upsells, unlike human employees who will rarely do so when facing dozens or hundreds of customers every shift, every day.

Once the order is taken, it will be passed to line cooks who will prepare the meal and a human will deliver it as usual, at least for now.

In February of 2022, fast food chain White Castle announced it would replace human cooks in 100 of its stores with a robot affectionately named “Flippy 2,” powered by both cameras and artificial intelligence.

“Flippy 2 also works faster than mortals, realizing a 30 percent higher throughput—60 baskets per hour—more than enough for a bigger QSR (quick-service restaurant),” Vision Times reported at the time.

The writing for fast food staff may be on the wall. Wendy’s Chief Information Officer Kevin Vasconi told WSJ that the chatbot is “at least as good as our best customer service representative, and it’s probably on average better.”

The development is significant because customer behavior has changed substantially since the measures introduced by governments and businesses during Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) changed human behavioral habits.

The company told the Journal that before the pandemic, two thirds of all orders were placed through the drive through, but after lockdown and social distancing mandates, that figure has increased to 80 percent.

Penegor was paraphrased as stating that, despite a restructuring plan announced in March to streamline business operations, “that the company is not looking to replace workers with the chatbot.” 

“The new technology is expected to help workers do their jobs by handling many of the manual tasks involved in taking drive-through orders,” the Journal summarized.

Rival fast food giant McDonald’s opened a location in Fort Worth, Texas that has no seating or dining areas and no customer-facing employees, NBC affiliate KXAN reported in April.

Video posted to social media show no staff visible in the store, only self-service kiosks. Orders are then brought to customers by robots complete with an animated face in a tablet or through machinery at the drive-thru window.