PITTSBURGH – Do you want fries with that? Never mind, we already know.
A Pittsburgh startup, HyperActive Technologies Inc. (search), is testing technology at area fast-food restaurants designed to give kitchen workers a good indication of what customers want before the hungry souls even get close enough to place an order.
The system, known as "HyperActive Bob (search)," is in place in several restaurants around Pittsburgh in a primitive form: It tells employees when they are about to get busy, even how much food to put on the grill.
The system uses rooftop cameras that monitor traffic entering a restaurantlot and drive-thru. Currently, the system is all about volume: If a minivan pulls in, there's apt to be more than one mouth to feed.
By this time next year, HyperActive Technologies expects to have in place software that keys on the type of vehicle entering the parking lot to determine whether the customers they bear are inclined to order, say, a burger over a chicken sandwich.
As it is, the currently installed technology — the predictive system is only running simulations for now — has wowed some seasoned veterans.
"I've been a manager for 28 years," said Pat Currie, a manager at a McDonald's (search) in Chippewa Township. "It's the most impressive thing I've ever seen."
HyperActive Bob is now at seven area McDonald's, a Burger King and a Taco Bell.
It was installed at Currie's restaurant two years ago. Since then, waste has been cut in half and wait times at the drive-thru have been reduced by 25 to 40 seconds per consumer, Currie said — an eternity in the fast-food industry.
Profit margins for fast-food franchisees are built and busted in seconds. Store managers must calculate demand and make their best guess as to how long that window of demand will last.
If they underestimate either, the lines begin to form and it's too late — it's no longer fast food. If a manager overestimates, profits head for the trash along with food that has a very short shelf life.
It's not enough to know that your restaurant sells 120 burgers during the lunch hour on week days. Managers must know during which 20 minutes the kitchen will go into high gear during that hour and it's always a shifting target, Currie said.
"We can get 65 (orders) in the first 20 minutes," he said. "This allows us to cook very precisely."
The fast-food environment could be the perfect environment for recognition software because the limited menu increases the odds of predicting correctly, said Kerien Fitzpatrick, president of HyperActive.
And it doesn't have to be perfect for it to work, he said.
"Let's say we know that there's a Big Mac promotion and we know that if there are five cars in the drive-thru through in six minutes. We know that there is a 100 percent likelihood, based on collected data, that someone will order a Big Mac within the next three minutes," he said. "Each location is different and those decisions are partly based on whether there are minivans or cars, or pickup trucks, what has happened in the past, and what is going on in real time."
HyperActive Bob has a memory that bases future predictions on what it has learned at a particular restaurant, but it remains to be seen if the technology can be used in mass scale, Fitzpatrick said.
Company officials flew to Florida last week to set up the system at two more restaurants that serve far more meals than the ones near company headquarters.
Officials at McDonald's headquarters outside Chicago said franchisees have wide latitude in how to run restaurants, and said there are no plans as of yet to use HyperActive Bob on a larger scale.
"These are entrepreneurs who are always looking for ways to maximize efficiencies and they are very creative," said spokesman Bill Whitman. "Our franchisees have begun initiatives to run all of our restaurants better and changed the menu with things like the Big Mac and the Filet-O-Fish."
The time it requires to train new hires has been reduced from three months to just over a week when using the system, Currie said.
"You can imagine the stress it takes off my people in the kitchen," he said. "I've got five people in there cooking all these different products and they're all yelling, 'I need this.' 'I'm down to two of these.' A lot of that is gone."