When you think of artificial intelligence, what are the first names to come to mind? We’re guessing you answered that question in your head with Microsoft, Google or Amazon, and not TGI Fridays.
Still, over the last year and a half, AI has become a big enough part of the brand’s overall strategy that Chief Experience Officer Sherif Mityas thinks of TGI Fridays as “a technology company that sells ribs.”
Mityas believes that technology is the key to engaging half a million restaurant-goers every day. We spoke to him about how he’s using machine learning to drive that, as well as chatbots, personalization and AI’s impact on TGI Fridays’ business results.
ClickZ: What inspired you to go all in on AI?
Sherif Mityas: To engage our guests on a one-to-one basis, we have to understand them. Who are they? How do they act when they think about food and drink? What encourages them to think about TGI Fridays as part of the consideration set? The only way to do that is through technology. The only way to scale that up across half a million guests every day is by automating and driving AI and machine learning into that process.
CZ: How does personalization factor in? We would imagine that’s tricky for a restaurant, where consumers are more likely to have diverse tastes than, say, clothes.
SM: A lot of people are creatures of habit. Some folks like a burger while they watch the football game on Sunday. Others are lifestyle-driven — pescatarian or vegetarian, for example — and you can target them with those menu items. Certain people always drink beer, as opposed to wine or mixed drinks.
We target in terms of what we offer people, and also in terms of when and where. If someone always goes out to eat after a movie on Saturday night, he probably goes to the same TGI Fridays every time. We know which one that is and we can direct a specific message to his phone at a specific time. Most people are very rooted in their traditions; we see a great deal of engagement and loyalty from those guests.
CZ: We recently wrote about brands having Alexa strategies. Can you tell us a bit about yours?
SM: We’re well beyond automating frequently asked questions. All of our bots — Facebook, Twitter, Alexa — learn how to converse and create new content in their conversations depending on the contextual dialogue people are used to seeing on each platform. Our Alexa skill answers basic questions about where the closest Fridays is and what the happy hour specials are. There are also fun things built in. If you ask Alexa what day it is, she’ll say, “In here, it’s always Friday.”
But it’s also functional. You can make reservations or order food through Amazon Pay, which saves your credit card information so your order is done as soon as you’re done speaking to it. We also have a virtual bartender that gives you recipes for one-of-a-kind drinks you can make with whatever ingredients you have at home.
CZ: How has AI impacted your business?
SM: We doubled our off-premise business in less than a year. We have 8 to 12,000 interactions per month with folks across all the social media platforms, which has increased fivefold. From an operational perspective, it’s really creating more efficiencies in our restaurants and as a result, more profitability.
AI helps managers with recommendations about scheduling, ordering, waste management, fraud detection, everything that goes into running a restaurant. For a particular store region’s weather, how should they order food and schedule their staff? With all that data, AI helps managers make those decisions more effectively and timely.
CZ: What’s next for TGI Fridays and AI?
SM: The question is, how do we continue to allow AI to make us more connected with an individual guest? Imagine a hostess has an earpiece connected to our AI engine. John walks in and because of his phone, we know he’s entered the building. That’s relayed to the hostess, who greets him by name and asks if he’d like his usual Long Island Iced Tea. Being able to treat someone like a VIP and connect one-to-one makes our team members better and really sets the experience apart for our guests. That’s the next evolution. How do you create these differentiated personalized experiences at scale? With AI.