Matt Wackerbarth began his career with Domino’s Pizza in 1998, while serving in the Air Force. Working his way through the ranks over the years, he and his wife went on to buy their first store in 2014, fulfilling a decades-long dream. But, when the pandemic hit, triggering a national labor shortage, that dream was in danger of crashing down on them and their four Florida restaurants. They got by for a year, but the great resignation made it clear that the jobs they were hiring for were nearly impossible to fill.
“With the staffing crisis everyone is having, we couldn’t do the business we wanted to do,” Wackerbarth said. “We needed to automate things we never thought about before.”
One of Wackerbarth’s biggest challenges was having enough people to answer the phone, a critical ingredient for pizza sales. He decided to automate this process using voice AI, turning over the task to a virtual assistant so his limited staff could focus their attention elsewhere.
“We’d lose three or four people at a time answering phones. Now they can concentrate on making food. It’s freed up amazing time and opportunity,” Wackerbarth said.
Wackerbarth is among the many restaurateurs embracing voice AI, a new technology that’s cracked the code for automating the time-consuming, repetitive, and vastly complicated process of person-to-person dialogue. And as more and more restaurants integrate AI into their everyday operations, they’re uncovering some very interesting findings. Customers are loving it. Staff are loving it. AI is filling jobs that people no longer want, and going so far as to save even more jobs by allowing businesses to stay open. With another strong labor forecast for 2022, it’s becoming quite apparent that AI isn’t just a temporary fix: it’s allowing restaurants to grow stronger than ever.
The Rise of Voice AI
Restaurant job openings have outpaced hiring for most of the COVID era, with nearly half a million unfilled positions at the end of 2021. Supply chain complications, inflation and rising food costs, compounded with surging consumer demand as the country emerges from the pandemic (future variants notwithstanding), has produced a perfect storm where innovation is the only way to make it out unscathed.
Online ordering, especially for delivery apps, has helped, but voice ordering continues to dominate restaurants’ business intake. In the quick service restaurants (QSR) space, drive-thru commands a whopping 65% of total orders placed, fueled by convenience as well as households seeking fresh food without entering the confines of a public space. Other restaurants, such as Wackerbarth’s, see the bulk of their business come over the phone. In all cases, ordering food gets significantly more complicated in dialogue form.
Early generations of voice AI prompted customers to interact with their phones in a similar way to what online ordering is today. The process of “Press 1 for X, press 2 for Y,” however, is long behind us, albeit not yet phased out. Voice AI technology today is highly interactive, mimicking the person-to-person interactions people seek. Siri and Alexa are prime examples of mainstream voice AI, showcasing how this evolving technology easily processes speech while accounting for accents, slang, background noise and other hurdles.
Restaurants, however, require specific conversation requirements not found with Siri and Alexa. Cracking the code for restaurant speak, in addition to preserving the high-touch guest experience hospitality businesses are known for, has allowed voice AI to enter the restaurant industry.