Some fast-food drive-thru experiences were immortalized by Joe Pesci in “Lethal Weapon 2” (expletives and all) when he basically said you never get a correct order. Fast-forward to today, and the technology is still a bit lacking, and any number of situations, from people talking in the background to a noisy engine, can inhibit the order-taker from hearing and relaying your order accurately.
Here’s where voice technology startup ConverseNow comes in. The four-year-old startup is tapping into voice artificial intelligence technology to put virtual assistants inside quick-serve restaurants to automate the order-taking process and free up staff to focus on fulfillment and in-person customer service.
“The voice AI space is new and still being explored,” Vinay Shukla, co-founder and CEO of ConverseNow, told TechCrunch. “Similar to online ordering, this technology took a few years to emerge and some have become leaders and some have become followers.”
He referenced companies like ordering tool startups Bbot, which is being acquired by DoorDash, and Lunchbox, which raised $50 million earlier this year, as those that are leading the space.
However, he explained that a problem has always existed in drive-thrus, but the technology has “never existed to solve the problem and is still not there 100%.” Even as the company applies its own voice AI technology, it is evolving, Shukla added.
“The applications of AI into different verticals are still new,” he said. “Food ordering becomes even more nuanced and drive-thru is complex. Even the best AI platforms may still need human help. What happens when there are birds chirping, kids screaming and engine noise? This is still a new space and market that companies like us created.”
We first profiled ConverseNow last year when it raised $15 million in Series A funding in a round led by Craft Ventures. The company is now back with an additional $10 million in what Shukla is calling a Series A1 round.
The new investment is in partnership with Enlightened Hospitality Investments, the growth equity fund co-founded by Danny Meyer, the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack. This is EHI’s third investment this year, according to Crunchbase data. This includes vision AI for food waste company PreciTaste, labor management startup 7shifts, and real estate tech company Withco.
As part of the investment, Meyer will join ConverseNow’s board of directors. The new funding gives ConverseNow total funding of $28.8 million since the company was founded in 2018.
In 2021, ConverseNow was live in over 750 stores, with Domino’s Pizza being its flagship restaurant brand. Today, that has grown to over 1,100 restaurants across 40 states and the addition of Fazoli’s and Blake’s Lotaburger. Shukla said that by the end of the year there will be 14 restaurant brands.
The company also experienced 12x revenue growth over the past 12 months and is helping its restaurant customers boost same-store sales up to 30%, increase average tickets up to 20% and provide up to 12 hours of additional labor per store each week.
The “bridge” funding, if you will, gives the company some runway to keep up with demand without the need to raise a Series B just yet, Shukla said. His team has doubled in size since the Series A round, and he expects to continue those hiring efforts in engineering and product.
ConverseNow intentionally started with phones, but the new funding also enables it to accelerate its drive-thru technology and implement it with large and midsized brands, which he describes as having between 200 and 500 stores. It began drive-thru installations earlier this year after a pilot with Fazoli’s.
Next up, the company is exploring additional channels for its AI and data, for example, at the intersection of mobile app ordering and bringing AI personalization in-store for guest experience. This is something it is already working with Fazoli’s on.
“We don’t see the fast food space affected much by the economy because it is the cheapest and fastest food available,” Shukla said. “For us, we are seeing a tremendous growth opportunity because the big guys, like DoorDash, haven’t gotten into this space because they would have to make a call center or partner with someone like us to get data.”
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