Restaurant Chatbots: Striking the Balance Between AI and Human Touch

What you need to know about bots talking to customers

In 2016, Domino’s introduced Dom, its ordering assistant. In those days, Dom lived on Facebook that had just launched its chatbot function allowing Messenger to transmit orders, fast.

It’s not a stretch to say it was magical, placing an order through a relatively new communication channel and not having to talk to a human. Plenty of other restaurants followed Domino’s, launching their own Facebook-based bots to help answer questions about the menu and provide other information. 


Eight years later, chatting with a restaurant online is decidedly less exciting. Automated chat boxes have become the norm. Getting stuck in an unhelpful loop has also become common – so much that ironically, users yearn for talking to a real human.

But the fast-changing world of artificial intelligence is honing chatbots that can process language and generate more meaningful and relevant responses. Can advances in text-based chats make them more popular and reliable enough for restaurateurs to allow them to be customer-facing?

“It seems there’s something new every week that’s quote-unquote, ‘changing the game’,” says Joe Lawton, chief operating officer of restaurant tech company Chowly, which uses bots for its own support functions, but is not a restaurant bot provider.

But not all bots are created equal. And as in-person hospitality extends online, employing a bot that’s frustratingly unhelpful is far worse than not using one at all.

Challenges With Current Chatbot Systems

“There is a ton of fatigue from unhelpful chatbots,” says a CEO of a small salad chain. (They asked not to be named because they haven’t launched the new tech yet.) That means that a particularly helpful bot can act as a differentiator for a restaurant, “hopefully a way to get folks to want to order from you again, because they know you can solve any issues that pop up.”

The simplest version of a chatbot is programmed manually. Businesses create responses and workflows for the bot to answer, pushing customers toward specific keywords or questions. “Think of it like a flowchart,” Lawton says. This produces a tightly controlled experience, but it doesn’t always give the customer what they’re looking for. 

On the other end of a spectrum, an AI-powered bot like ChatGPT that’s given free license to chat might go off the rails. What they offer in strangely human-like conversation could give unhelpful or even incorrect information. Plus, a restaurant or other business can’t control what it’s talking to customers about.

Ad: Sweet Street
Ad: Sweet Street

Optimal Restaurant Chatbots: Trained AI and Real Human Access

The most helpful bots for restaurants land somewhere in the middle: AI engages guests, but are trained on a specific set of information. Restaurants can input menus, procedures, frequently asked questions and any other important details that the bot can process and share. That’s where the salad chain landed. 

“We were trying to find a partner that could absolutely solve some percentage of message-use cases on their own through AI,” the company’s CEO said. “The partner that we’re most likely going to go with allows for (customers) to get to a representative right away if that’s what (they) want. That’s important.”

Technically speaking, chatbots for restaurants can be programmed to help with customers and operations. On the customer end, they include booking reservations, sharing hours and location, and ordering food. But the more likely scenario is for support as evidenced by larger restaurants. 

Tech-forward salad giant Sweetgreen’s bot, powered by a third-party provider called Kustomer, lives deep inside a contact page on its website. If a customer wants to chat about anything besides an existing order, the bot asks for an email address – presumably so a real-life support agent can take over the conversation if it veers outside the lines. 

Similarly, a Shake Shack conversational bot in the restaurant’s help center directs customers to frequently asked questions, including nutritional info and how to apply for a job. Talking about anything else requires the customer to share their email address once again. “We’ll use this to find your profile and any existing conversations – not to spam you.” For any request other than order status, diners are handed off to a live support agent. 

That live, human help remains crucial to any restaurant interested in an automated support agent. 

“One of my greatest fears is that even one person wasn’t going to get the help they needed because the chatbot messed up or pointed them in the wrong direction, and there was no oversight,” Lawton says. “We always want to have people that are reviewing these messages and reviewing these workflows.” 

In other words, a bot isn’t going to step in and replace a human helper anytime soon. The salad operator uses a contracted support team outside of the U.S. to handle customer email requests; adding chat support is just another layer of customer support.

“I don’t think small restaurants are going to be able to pull this off unless they have some sort of offshore support,” the salad operator said, “or someone who’s sitting there all day long, able to do this.”