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Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s to roll out A.I. drive-thru ordering nationwide

  • CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, is working to bring automated drive-thru ordering to its restaurants nationwide.
  • CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, has partnered with Presto and OpenCity, which both have the ability to launch nationwide at the company’s locations.
  • Presto says its technology can help improve speed of service and accuracy, and is better at upselling customers.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations will roll out automated drive-thru ordering nationwide using artificial intelligence software.

CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, has partnered with Presto and OpenCity, which both have the ability to launch at the company’s locations nationwide. Presto Voice is already used at Del Taco and Checkers & Rally’s restaurants, while OpenCity’s Tori has been used by a Popeyes franchisee.

Additionally, Valyant AI has a deal with CKE to use its voice-ordering tech at 32 locations, with the ability to expand to another 21 restaurants in the coming months.

Together, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have about 2,800 restaurants across 44 U.S. states. Hardee’s locations are mostly in the Midwest and South, while Carl’s Jr. restaurants are found in the West. CKE’s revenue rose 10.2% last year to $646.3 million, according to franchise disclosure documents.

CKE tested the software last year at a handful of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations. The company’s chief technology officer, Phil Crawford, told CNBC that the pilot exceeded CKE’s expectations for key metrics, like speed of service, upselling, intervention rate from workers, order accuracy, and the employee and customer experience.

The wider rollout of voice-ordering software at CKE’s restaurants comes amid broader adoption of artificial intelligence in the restaurant industry.

The technology usually runs on its own, but workers can still hear customers’ orders through their headsets while they make drinks, accept payment and talk to customers at the window. Customers spend less time in the drive-thru line, while employees aren’t overwhelmed by too many tasks.

Artificial intelligence is also better at “relentlessly upselling” customers, according to Presto President Dan Mosher. Adding fries or a large drink to the order means more sales for restaurants.

CKE operates about 250 of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants, while franchisees run the rest. Crawford declined to share how many franchisees have already signed on to use Presto Voice but said the technology complements CKE’s broader effort to improve the drive-thru ordering experience.

“Like most people in the [quick-service restaurant] industry, we’ve obviously seen a continued surge in drive-thru ordering,” he said. “This is us focusing on speed of service and accuracy.”

Private equity firm Roark Capital owns CKE Restaurants. The firm also owns Dunkin’ parent Inspire Brands and Auntie Anne’s owner Focus Brands.

CKE isn’t the only restaurant company using automation to upgrade its drive-thru service. McDonald’s sold McD Tech Labs, previously known as Apprente, to IBM in 2021 and said it would partner with the tech company to develop artificial intelligence that can take drive-thru orders.

Gupta said some of those employees now work for Presto.

Historically, the restaurant industry has been reluctant to invest in technology, often trailing behind retailers and other consumer businesses. Gupta chalks it up to eateries’ low margins and relatively low labor costs.

But restaurants’ strategies have now changed.

“Now that equation is sort of flipped around, where margins may be still under some pressure, but labor costs are going up and the technology is ready to truly be able to alleviate the labor costs as well and drive incremental revenue,” he said.

As ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence software has grabbed headlines in recent months, restaurant operators have grown more curious about incorporating it into their businesses. Mosher said there’s been heightened interest in technology like Presto Voice over the last six months.

But ChatGPT and Presto have closer ties, too. ChatGPT developer OpenAI and Presto said in March that they’re partnering to expand Presto Voice’s features. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was also an early investor in Presto.

Presto went public last autumn through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, which uses the proceeds from an initial public offering and bank financing to buy and take private companies public. After a brief boom, SPAC deals have fallen out of favor due to rockier market conditions and looming regulation.

Since Presto’s Sept. 21 listing on the Nasdaq, its shares have fallen 54%. But the stock’s performance has improved.

Presto’s stock spiked more than 12% on Thursday. Its shares have risen 38% this year, giving the company a market value of more than $161 million.