Panera Bread tests artificial intelligence technology in drive-thru lanes

Starting Monday, drive-thru customers at two Panera Bread locations in upstate New York will have their orders taken by a computer in a test of artificial intelligence technology’s accuracy and ability to decrease service times.

The sandwich chain is the latest restaurant company to invest in potential improvements to the drive-thru experience. A surge in drive-thru ordering during the Covid pandemic led to long lines of cars wrapped around restaurants, pushing chains to focus on speed of service and order accuracy.

For example, McDonald’s has also been working to automate its drive-thru lane, announcing a partnership last year with IBM to work toward that goal. Yum Brands’ Taco Bell and Restaurant Brands International’s Burger King have been building double drive-thru lanes at some locations to allow customers to pick up their digital orders more quickly. Fast-casual chains like Shake Shack and Sweetgreen that once balked at drive-thru lanes have been adding them.

Panera Bread is using 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. So far, its technology is being used by more than two dozen restaurants, including at least one Popeyes location in Louisiana, OpenCity’s website said.

Financial terms of Panera’s agreement with OpenCity weren’t disclosed.

At Panera, customers will interact with Tori when they pull up to the drive-thru speaker. Panera employees will be on standby to offer assistance and to take payment for orders.

The test will be used to evaluate if Tori should be expanded to more Panera restaurants, Panera’s operating chief, Debbie Roberts, said in a statement. About 45% of Panera’s more than 2,000 locations have drive-thru lanes.

Panera has already been tinkering 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 kept investing in technology, boosting its digital sales and maintaining its reputation as a leader in the restaurant industry. Earlier this summer, citing market conditions, it scrapped a planned deal with restaurateur Danny Meyer’s investment group that would have helped it go public again.