IPO Corner: Virtual Staffing

Picture it… you’re cruising down the interstate, family chattering at you from the back seat, the ever-changing American landscape whizzing by. Then, suddenly, you hear the dreaded little peeps of “I’m getting hungry” and “Yeah, I’m thirsty” coming faster and closer together. Your passengers are transforming into a hungry, fidgety hoard and it’s up to you to find a way to satisfy them.

You, being the resourceful provider you are, find an offramp, park, and lead your family into the gas station/burger-joint you’ve chosen… only to find there are no human beings. At least, not that you immediately see. Then, you hear a cheerful voice greeting you, and telling you to let them know if you need any assistance. Upon inspection, you find it came from a man speaking to you from a tablet at the checkout counter.

If you’ve had this experience already, congratulations. You’re one of the first to shop in the future… at least, to some degree, in an early iteration. In some places, like Crazy Pita in Las Vegas, business owners are opting to deal with the labor shortage by utilizing virtual staff. If you were to pop into Crazy Pita right now, a cashier working from home would greet you, video chat with you, and help you get in and out, all while never stepping foot on the property themselves.

Maybe a virtual cashier isn’t too much of a stretch for you… how about virtual waiters? Yup, that’s happening too. At one Portland bistro, robots with built-in censors and cameras act as bodies for wait staff, while the humans operating them are comfy back at home. The robots do the heavy lifting, and the humans on the other side of the camera chat with visitors through a “face” screen which can accommodate text chat as well.

If you’re one of these virtual cashiers or waiters, you’ll be using a mousepad to control your on-premises robot counterpart. Now, while this may sound silly… let us point out some fantastic benefits. Firstly, one human server can jump from robot to robot as needed, rendering them as useful as several servers. Next, imagine how quick and easy staff can be brought on in a rush… with the flip of a switch.

Also, it totally changes hiring. The candidate pool is busted wide open, you’re free to choose talent from anywhere, at any time. Human servers and wait staff come with the risk of bodily injury, or other workplace hazards. Virtual staff changes it all. With some waitstaff units only costing around $6,000, they could pay for themselves many times over, quickly. These are only a few of the potential upsides.

Pushing It Further

But what comes next? Taking virtual staffing to its logical next step means AI-driven virtual staff… because it only makes sense. And yes, as you could have guessed, it is already coming down the pike. One Austin-based startup called ConverseNow is shaking up the fast-food game with an AI-powered virtual assistant that, as of a few months ago, was already answering calls and taking orders at over 1,200 establishments across 40 states.

The company recently raised $10 million to help build-out their AI-powered fast-food fantasies, which are going quite well so far. Among chains already falling in love with the technology are Fazoli’s and Domino’s Pizza. The funds came from Enlightened Hospitality Investments, co-founded by Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer. The company had previously raised $15 million via Series A funding. Their conversational clerk may be in your favorite fast-food joint before you know it.

Those rooting for AI-driven virtual staff note that this type of staffing is only one piece of a larger puzzle… that dinning has already changed, and this is truly but one aspect. We’ve witnessed the rise of contactless dining and an onslaught of QR codes everything, from choosing an item on a menu to paying. AI-driven virtual staff could be seen as vital to the entire working mechanism that is our new dining experience.

As businesses continue to hone efficiency and combat the labor shortage, the structured data that AI can bring to the table is poised to win. Imagine a cashier or server that never gets tired, irritated, or forgets what kind of condiments a customer likes on their burger. As others have rightly pointed out, we’re no longer worried about “virtual” tech taking jobs, we’re worried about working fast, accurately, and profitably. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the IPO space.