As with many other sectors, AI is shaking up the restaurant and food industry. Restaurants are experimenting with the technology to take orders, forecast inventory, and dictate staffing needs.
Others are taking it a step further and using it to help design menu items based on customer preferences. Shake Shack and Coca-Cola have used AI to design menu options and flavours, an experiment that is becoming increasingly popular. Both national and local restaurants are testing AI-inspired recipes.
AI provides unbiased feedback, some say
“AI is an unbiased tool that can speed up the R&D process,” said Clay Dover, the CEO of Velvet Taco, a Dallas-based taco chain with 43 locations nationwide. Velvet Taco recently featured the “Chat GPTaco” as part of the restaurant’s “weekly taco feature,” or “wtf,” to huge success.
Velvet Taco, a Dallas-based taco chain featured a ChatGPT Taco as part of the restaurant’s “weekly taco feature,” or “wtf.”
“My head chef came to me and said, ‘I found this thing called Chat GPT, and I’m going to plug every menu item we have into it to see what comes up to create the perfect Velvet Taco,'” Dover said. “The AI recommended what would most appeal to our customer base. So we tested and tasted the recommendations, tweaking the recipe until we had what we thought would work best for our customers.”
The Chat GPTaco features flank steak, blackened shrimp, red chile aioli, chimichurri, crispy potatoes, grilled onion, queso fresco, jalapeño, and cilantro on a corn tortilla. The taco became the restaurant’s best-selling and best-rated taco in 2023.
Dover said the promotion created considerable buzz, but that wasn’t why the taco was so successful. “Our customers rated the Chat GPTaco 4.6 out of 5 on guest surveys. The taco rated No. 2 in guest satisfaction, texture, taste, and reorder possibility. It’s still one of our most popular menu items.”
Enhancing menu creativity
Local restaurants are also testing generative-AI technology, and several establishments say their tests are exceeding expectations.
Greg Tierney, the owner of Motor City Pizza, a Detroit-style pizzeria in Lewisville, Texas, told Insider that AI has enhanced his menu. Tierney said one of his regular customers had an idea for a new pizza. He got the recipe from AI by using standard pizza ingredients, then plugged ideas like “Mexican street-corn pizza” into the AI. Chat GPT spit out an initial recipe.
“My customer made a few adjustments, wanting it more savory, adding a protein, and nursing it along. The AI eventually created the Winston’s Elote,” Tierney said.
The Winston’s Elote pizza is a blend of roasted corn, red peppers, onions, jalapenos, and chicken on Detroit-style crust, topped with queso fresco, cilantro, and drizzled with a tangy cream and hot sauce. “Winston’s Elote is now a permanent item on our menu. Our customers love it,” Tierney said.
What restaurants can learn from using AI
Dover said he was excited by the efficiency restaurants can gain when using AI to create recipes. “As chefs and as CEOs, we always skew towards our own tastes and preferences,” he explained. “AI is a neutral way around that. It also helps to speed up the process, which is still chef-driven. AI is not going to take a chef’s place. Instead, it’s going to be one of a chef’s most valuable tools.”
Velvet Taco plans to feature another AI-generated taco at some point by refining the parameters even further. “Maybe we’ll do a vegetarian version or focus on a specific protein or region” he said. He said he might prompt ChatGPT to “give me something with tofu, or with chicken. Give me something specific to the Southeast or Southwest.”
Tierney also plans to feature another Chat GPT-inspired pizza in the future and is looking into ways AI can help improve processes. “We may use AI to create fall pizzas, or pizzas in line with hot trends. We can even use it to improve what we’re doing with yeast, with humidity, and dough rising,” he said.
Where the technology is going from here
Since the widespread disruption of the restaurant workforce in 2020, hospitality experts have pinpointed AI as a driver of automation to help restaurant production. A 2021 report from LightspeedHQ that surveyed over 8,000 restaurant owners and operators found that 50% of them were planning to implement some kind of automation technology within the next two to three years.
Dover emphasised the advantages of AI in providing unbiased data to help with this process. “We will be able to get data on where we should open our next location, improve site selections, or create training manuals. Overall, it will help us run the business more efficiently and level the playing field by providing access to information not previously available. AI takes the emotion and blame out of ideation and decision-making. It provides good validation.”
“AI will be another tool to help restaurants improve operations, troubleshoot, and look for efficiencies,” Tierney said. “I want to learn how high the possibilities can go and use the technology to its fullest extent.”