Vehicles stand in drive-through lanes in a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant. in Princeton, Illinois.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

At 10 McDonald’s locations in Chicago, workers aren’t taking drive-thru orders from customers for McNuggets and French fries – it’s a computer, CEO Chris Kempczinski said on Wednesday.

Kempczinski said the restaurants that use voice ordering technology achieve order accuracy of around 85%. Only about a fifth of orders at these locations would have to be taken by a human, he said at Alliance Bernstein’s strategic decision-making conference.

Over the past decade, restaurants have increasingly turned to technology to improve customer experiences and reduce staffing levels. In 2019, under former CEO Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s went on a shopping spree and bought restaurant technology. One such acquisition was Apprente, which uses artificial intelligence software to take drive-through orders. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Kempczinski said the technology will likely take more than a year or two to implement.

“Now there is a huge leap from 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants in the US, with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather – and so on and on and on,” he said.

Another challenge was training restaurant workers to keep themselves from jumping in to help.

McDonald’s has also looked into automating more of the kitchen, such as its deep fryers and grills, Kempczinski said. However, he added that this technology is unlikely to be rolled out within the next five years, although it can now.

“The amount of investment required, the upfront cost, we are far from what breakeven would have to be from a labor cost perspective to make this a good business choice for franchisees,” said Kempczinski.

And because restaurant technology is evolving so quickly, McDonald’s won’t always be able to innovate or even keep up on its own, said Kempczinski. The company’s current strategy is to wait for opportunities to arise that are unique to the company.

“When we do acquisitions, this is going to be for a short period of time, bring it in house, crank it up, speed it up, and then spin it back out and find a partner who will work for us and scale it up,” he said.