This AI-powered chatbot startup raised $17 million to help brands like Domino’s streamline calling in your pizza order

domino's pizza

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The way consumers order fast food has vastly changed over the last few years. Restaurant brands like McDonald’s and Taco Bell have modernized stores with kiosks and digital menu boards in drive-thru lanes to meet consumer demand for speed, convenience, and personalization.

Meanwhile, companies like Starbucks and Panera Bread have revolutionized mobile order pickup. 

But one of the oldest methods of initiating fast food transactions has remained largely unchanged: phone ordering. In fact, many chains have scrapped taking orders over the phone altogether as mobile-savvy consumers shift to ordering takeout or delivery from their devices. 

Food tech startup Kea wants to give fast food phone ordering a long-overdue overhaul with its AI-powered voice assistants. And at least Domino’s Pizza is taking notice. After initial testing, dozens of Domino’s franchise locations are lining up for Kea’s chatbots.

“We’re sitting at a little over 175 restaurants in the Domino’s world, and we have a backlog of about 150 restaurants that are just waiting to be activated,” CEO Adam Ahmad told Insider.

Since the pandemic hit, Kea has seen a surge in interest in its automated voice assistant technology from fast-food chains and food tech investors. 

The company is adding 20-25 new restaurant locations each week across a handful of major chains. To date, the Silicon Valley-based company has raised $17.8 million. 

Adam Ahmad, CEO of Kea

Solving the fast-food phone problem

Ahmad founded Kea in 2018 to solve a major pain point for fast food chains that still take phone orders.

Oftentimes, phone calls take a back seat to in-person orders or other tasks, forcing employees to put customers on endless hold, said the tech entrepreneur, who previously owned food delivery business Food Lovers United Corp before selling it to Google in 2016.

He projects that missed phone orders cost restaurants 20% to 50% in annual revenue. That’s a rough reality for pizza players, as phone orders can account for 30% of sales. According to Kea’s research, for some pizza outlets, phone transactions can represent 50% to 60% of orders.

Kea charges 7% for every order that is successfully placed, which Ahmad said is much cheaper than commissions chains pay third-party delivery companies. 

Ahmad said Kea’s automated bots can also handle multiple phone orders at once, allowing restaurant owners to redeploy staff to help with hospitality-focused tasks like expediting curbside orders. 

That said, automated phone systems are not new. Retail and utility companies have used automated phone systems for years. But Kea’s “cashiers in the cloud” are powered by artificial intelligence that is constantly learning the craft of conversation, Ahmad said.

The bots have eight different voices, including one with a Southern accent. If the restaurant chooses, it can have the voice change depending on the region where the call is coming from. 

“We try to adjust it based on the geography,” Ahmad said, adding that the voice assistants use machine learning to understand “accents” and conversational phrases “from all over America” to process orders and payments.

Still, Kea knows that the human touch is often necessary on some calls. If need be, calls can be transferred to a “live” human who can finish the order if there’s a glitch. 

“It’s kind of like the best of both worlds,” he said.

Kea Graphic

Growth in voice automation

Kea’s fast-food clients are not alone in the call automation space.

In 2019, fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill rolled out an AI voice system across most of its locations using multiple partners on the tech side, Chipotle’s Vice President of Digital Strategy and Product Nicole West told Insider via an email. 

“All Chipotle restaurants leverage automated technology to take phone orders from guests who prefer to call in their Chipotle order,” West said. “We have also added chatbots and automation to support customer care.”

Still, Kea hopes to lead the space. By 2022, the company projects it will be in 1,000 restaurants with a primary focus on fast food outlets that serve pizza, wings, and burgers.

Besides Domino’s, kea works with Five Guys and Primanti Brothers. Papa John’s and Donatos Pizza have also tested its system. 

But Kea’s expanded partnership with Domino’s is a game changer. 

Depending on the location, Kea said these Domino’s stores are generating additional revenue from automated phone orders ranging from $1,000 a week to $2,000 a week.  

“It became very evident that this is a really great solution for Domino’s,” he said. 

Adopting outside tech by Domino’s is significant given that the pizza chain often bills itself as an e-commerce company that happens to sell pizzas. In late 2019, the pizza chain opened an Innovation Garage to develop new technologies that streamline operations.

“Domino’s historically has tried to do their own call center, but it proved to be too expensive,” Ahmad said.

Most of the tests, so far, have been with Domino’s franchisees, who own hundreds of units across the US. 

“The franchisees have a lot of say in how things operate, and now that we have their support, we’re starting to get all the largest operators in the country to lean in and give us their locations,” Ahmad said.

The only thing stopping Kea from growing faster is the human component of its hybrid system. 

For every new brand it works with, Ahmad has to hire and train in-house Kea employees to tackle customer calls about each restaurant.

Kea’s call center has grown from 150 to roughly 300 workers since late fall. They are trained to know everything about each restaurant, especially intimate menu details. 

“We don’t pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, thanks for calling Kea,'” he said. 

Instead, Kea’s call center reps say:  “Thanks for calling Domino’s. May I take your order?”

“We’re essentially an extension of the brand,” Ahmad said.

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