Artificial intelligence (AI) is playing a vital role helping TGI Fridays achieve its goal in a few ways: It is improving outreach to customers and it is making its many retail establishments run in a consistent and efficient manner. It’s also serving up drinks.

Using AI to for Marketing

AI is especially useful in sales because it can do a better job than humans of mining the mountain of data that is collected on customers. “Given what we know about ‘John,’ how can we personalize engagement him with the right content, at the right time and on the right platform?” Sherif Mityas, TGI Fridays chief experience officer, told IT Business Edge. “That’s where the tool creates personalized touch points to create a ‘plus-one’ decision: Visiting a restaurant one more time, visiting one more time online, putting one more thing in the basket, making one more reservation.”

AI tools from Amperity analyze data about customers that is culled from social media, interactions and other sources. The goal is to address him or her with precisely the right marketing effort at precisely the right time, Mityas said.

For instance, the platform may choose between several marketing emails – or suggest the creation of a new email with some elements of the existing choices or wholly new elements. Perhaps an individual has a history of ordering hamburgers but substituting a salad for the French fries. Changing the artwork in the email to reflect that healthier approach could be the subtle nudge needed to get the person to place an order. The point is that small things matter, and AI is orders of magnitude better at finding that single decisive nugget than humans.

The tool has been rolling out at TGI Fridays for about six months. It will be fully deployed in the TGI Fridays nearly 1,000 locations by the end of the year. Mityas said that “off-premises” (takeout) business has doubled at the locations that are using the system.

Any advantage is important in such a competitive business and one in which buying decisions often are made on a whim.

“From a business strategy perspective, we need to create a differentiation in the eyes of guests because there are so many places they can call for food and beverage occasions,” Mityas said. “We needed to target for ‘Carl’ versus ‘John.'”

AI Helps Manage Restaurants

The second way in which TGI Fridays is using AI is in running its restaurants. It is central to each location’s labor scheduling, purchasing, fraud detection and reduction of product waste, Mityas said. “We are creating what we call an angel on the shoulder [of the GM] for better and faster decision making.”

Just about anything that goes on in one of the chain’s locales is monitored and in many cases influenced by the AI platform. In some cases, the suggestions made by the AI system are delivered during the day in real time via text messages to the general manager. The use of texts aims to free the general manager from his or her PC and encourage more interaction with patrons and staff.

Not everybody handles their job the same way. AI makes sure that, ultimately, things are done the TGI Fridays way. “It’s more of a consistency issue for us,” Mityas said. “We have different GMs. Some have been around and know all ins and outs, and they would make decisions that are very similar [to the AI system]. Taking the AI capability and doing the same thing everywhere raises the water mark for entire chain, across all the restaurants, regardless of capability or tenure of the GM.”

AI Customizes Drinks

The third way in which TGI Fridays is using AI is in mixing drinks, with an application called “Flanagan” in honor of Tom Cruise’s character in the movie “Cocktail.” The application, which was created by Hypergiant, assesses the mood and flavor preferences of the customer and chooses from 300 taste profiles, some of which the company says use unexpected ingredients.

Flanagan sounds as if it may only be a clever marketing ploy. After all, figuring out that a customer would love a touch of apricot brandy in her drink doesn’t seem as important as telling the GM that he is understaffing for the next day’s rush. However, customers have a wide variety of choices on where they eat and drink. Offering a drink that an individual finds memorable that is not available elsewhere can be a competitive advantage that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Using AI seems to be a natural for a company such as TGI Fridays. It plays in an extremely competitive field. Any advantage – cutting just a bit of inefficiency, finding a way to appeal just a little more to customers – multiplied by the large number of locations can make a big difference. Mityas said that it is possible the company will use AI in other areas in the future.

That clearly sets the parameters for use of AI in commercial settings in general and restaurants in particular. “The current wave of AI will excel most at the front lines of business — in customer service and support, sales and customer engagement and loyalty,” wrote Hypergiant CEO and Co-Founder Ben Lamm. “Food service, as well as travel and hospitality industries, have aggressively adopted this technology because those business functions are the core drivers of their performance. In the long run, this will shift slightly and AI will excel most in business intelligence and business process automation.”

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.