ConverseNow expands its drive-thru ordering tech as it bags another $10M

Some fast-food drive-thru experiences were immortalized by Joe Pesci in “Lethal Weapon 2” (expletives and all) when he basically said you never get a correct order. Fast-forward to today, and the technology is still a bit lacking, and any number of situations, from people talking in the background to a noisy engine, can inhibit the order-taker from hearing and relaying your order accurately.

Here’s where voice technology startup ConverseNow comes in. The four-year-old startup is tapping into voice artificial intelligence technology to put virtual assistants inside quick-serve restaurants to automate the order-taking process and free up staff to focus on fulfillment and in-person customer service.

“The voice AI space is new and still being explored,” Vinay Shukla, co-founder and CEO of ConverseNow, told TechCrunch. “Similar to online ordering, this technology took a few years to emerge and some have become leaders and some have become followers.”

He referenced companies like ordering tool startups Bbot, which is being acquired by DoorDash, and Lunchbox, which raised $50 million earlier this year, as those that are leading the space.

However, he explained that a problem has always existed in drive-thrus, but the technology has “never existed to solve the problem and is still not there 100%.” Even as the company applies its own voice AI technology, it is evolving, Shukla added.

“The applications of AI into different verticals are still new,” he said. “Food ordering becomes even more nuanced and drive-thru is complex. Even the best AI platforms may still need human help. What happens when there are birds chirping, kids screaming and engine noise? This is still a new space and market that companies like us created.”

We first profiled ConverseNow last year when it raised $15 million in Series A funding in a round led by Craft Ventures. The company is now back with an additional $10 million in what Shukla is calling a Series A1 round.

The new investment is in partnership with Enlightened Hospitality Investments, the growth equity fund co-founded by Danny Meyer, the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack. This is EHI’s third investment this year, according to Crunchbase data. This includes vision AI for food waste company PreciTaste, labor management startup 7shifts, and real estate tech company Withco.

As part of the investment, Meyer will join ConverseNow’s board of directors. The new funding gives ConverseNow total funding of $28.8 million since the company was founded in 2018.

In 2021, ConverseNow was live in over 750 stores, with Domino’s Pizza being its flagship restaurant brand. Today, that has grown to over 1,100 restaurants across 40 states and the addition of Fazoli’s and Blake’s Lotaburger. Shukla said that by the end of the year there will be 14 restaurant brands.

The company also experienced 12x revenue growth over the past 12 months and is helping its restaurant customers boost same-store sales up to 30%, increase average tickets up to 20% and provide up to 12 hours of additional labor per store each week.

The “bridge” funding, if you will, gives the company some runway to keep up with demand without the need to raise a Series B just yet, Shukla said. His team has doubled in size since the Series A round, and he expects to continue those hiring efforts in engineering and product.

ConverseNow intentionally started with phones, but the new funding also enables it to accelerate its drive-thru technology and implement it with large and midsized brands, which he describes as having between 200 and 500 stores. It began drive-thru installations earlier this year after a pilot with Fazoli’s.

Next up, the company is exploring additional channels for its AI and data, for example, at the intersection of mobile app ordering and bringing AI personalization in-store for guest experience. This is something it is already working with Fazoli’s on.

“We don’t see the fast food space affected much by the economy because it is the cheapest and fastest food available,” Shukla said. “For us, we are seeing a tremendous growth opportunity because the big guys, like DoorDash, haven’t gotten into this space because they would have to make a call center or partner with someone like us to get data.”

Product Managers Prepare To Go To Battle Over Fried Chicken

Product managers have to provide their customers with what they want
Product managers have to provide their customers with what they want
Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

You would think that being a burger product manager would be a fairly simple job: you get the burger, you make the burger, you sell the burger. However, once upon a time it might have been that simple; however, these days it has become much more complicated. If you can ignore for a moment the fact that you are facing a great deal of competition, it now turns out that your customer’s tastes are changing. Burger product managers have a challenge on their hands and they are going to have to get creative and change their product development definition.

Turns Out That It’s All About Chicken

Product managers at least 10 major U.S. fast-food chains have introduced fried-chicken sandwiches in the past three months, or are set to shortly. Many of those product managers who are peddling the new poultry items work at companies better known as hamburger chains, including McDonald’s, Shake Shack and Jack in the Box. Restaurant operators who have been grappling with slowdowns and restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, aim to try to capture consumers’ enthusiasm for crispy, breaded-chicken sandwiches. Once upon a time that fervor helped build Chick-fil-A into one of the nation’s top fast-food chains over the past decade, and made Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen offering a social-media sensation after its 2019 debut. Successes like this would look good on anyone’s product manager resume.

The chicken-sandwich war, as product managers describe it, means diners have lots of options – such as a Korean-style iteration at Shake Shack, a McDonald’s version topped with spicy pepper sauce and a new KFC offering that the chain bills as its “best chicken sandwich ever.” The sandwich craze also might bring lasting changes to the restaurant business, with product managers spending thousands of dollars on new equipment for battering chicken filets to compete for what some franchisees say is the future of eating out.

Burgers are the still top sellers at fast-food restaurants…but breaded-chicken sandwiches have been gaining ground. As an example of this, Shake Shack began selling its new fried-chicken sandwich in the burger chain’s South Korean restaurants during the fall, before it made its debut in the U.S. One of the first limited-time items it put on menus during the pandemic was a spicy chicken sandwich. Stake Shack product managers just want to sell more chicken. Customers are always going to love burgers and chicken, and they want to be known for both. Fast-food restaurants remain bastions of beef, with Big Macs, Whoppers and other burgers outselling breaded-chicken sandwiches by roughly 3-to-1.

What Comes Next?

Hailing the new chicken competition are poultry executives, who face pandemic-constrained dining and surging grain prices. Chicken sandwiches tend to be more profitable than beef ones sold in chain restaurants, as they draw on a cheaper commodity. Chicken sandwiches typically cost less on menus than big burgers, a possible draw for budget-conscious consumers during the pandemic.

Restaurant chains and franchisees are currently investing heavily in the battle. KFC said it worked with six bakeries in order to find a bun able to handle its quarter-pound white-meat filet that will make its nationwide debut in February, a chicken patty about 20% larger than its existing crispy option. Church’s Chicken owners spent about $3,000 per restaurant to buy equipment to make the chain’s new chicken sandwich, while Burger King owners are buying battering stations to install in kitchens as they test a hand-breaded chicken sandwich.

At McDonald’s, which hasn’t had a Southern-style battered-chicken sandwich on its U.S. menus nationwide for years, product managers at franchisees have been pushing for one. They know that they can’t afford to be last in a category that clearly is the future of fast food. Responding to customer demand, McDonald’s product managers said they would begin selling a Crispy Chicken Sandwich with crinkle-cut pickles on a buttered potato bun, while adding two other chicken sandwiches to the permanent menu. McDonald’s product managers told franchisees during an internal meeting that a successful crispy-chicken-sandwich launch was a priority. Product managers said they were studying how to introduce more chicken at breakfast, an option long sought by franchisees in the South.

What All Of This Means For You

The world of burger product managers is currently undergoing a significant transformation. What used to be a pretty straightforward job has all of sudden become much more complicated. It turns out that what customers really want these days is chicken. Burger product managers are having to study their product manager job description and scramble to find ways to meet the new need. Most of the major fast food chains are in the process of introducing new chicken sandwiches. Some chains have built their entire business on the success of their chicken offerings. Offering chicken sandwiches can provide customers with more options. However, when a chain starts to offer chicken sandwiches, they have to make investments in order to serve the new chicken products. Product managers believe that customers will always buy both burgers and chicken. They just want to meet all of their customer’s needs. Chicken sandwiches generally cost less than burgers. In order to start offering chicken, restaurant chains are investing heavily in order to prepare and serve the chicken. Even McDonalds is preparing to introduce a new chicken sandwich. Clearly the world has changed. Customers who visit burger joints are no longer going to be satisfied with just being offered burgers – now they want chicken. Burger product managers are in the process of trying to determine how they can shift to providing this new type of product. Since it looks like just about everyone is trying to do this, we’ll have to keep our eyes open and discover who ends up doing it the best.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that burger chains should stop selling burgers and focus on chicken?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

You would think that if you were a product manager at one of the world’s largest retail companies, getting into a new line of business would not be all that hard to do. I mean your company has deep pockets and can probably spend a lot of money to do whatever everyone else in this new market is doing. The result isn’t if you are going to be successful, it’s really more a question of just how successful you are going to be. As Walmart has gotten into the home grocery delivery business, their product managers have discovered that even being big may not be enough to ensure that they will be a success.

The post Product Managers Prepare To Go To Battle Over Fried Chicken appeared first on The Accidental Product Manager.

Why focusing on holistic care helped Kindbody triple its revenue in 2021

One story from The Verge referred to Kindbody as the “SoulCycle” of fertility, pointing out that it sells fertility services and “empowerment” to 25-year-olds. It’s kind of a stretch, but I can see how the company could be compared to the aesthetic-driven facade of The Wing.

Kindbody isn’t solely selling a dream of belonging, however — there is a large focus on the consumerism of patient care. By concentrating on helping its patients feel like they have agency over their fertility journeys, Kindbody is trying to fit into the lives of those wanting to get pregnant.

“When you build businesses you have to think about how consumers behave today and what’s changed in the last five years or 10 years or 15 years,” Kindbody founder and chairwoman Gina Bartasi said. “And consumers crave and receive content.”

She recognizes how different the space is now compared to when she went through her own fertility journey.

“I think the hardest part is adapting, whether it’s adapting the media or adapting to healthcare,” she said. “You constantly have to have this circle and loop back with your customer and customer behavior and how that’s changed. And in healthcare, of course, your customer is the patient.”

Over the last decade, our lives have changed exponentially due to the easy access to information via social media platforms, and the COVID-19 pandemic only added a feeling of perpetual uncertainty. Businesses shut down for months at the top of 2020, schools have oscillated between mandating physical attendance and holding virtual classes nationwide, and offices that once forbade remote work have been introduced to hybrid setups like “hoteling.”

“The majority of patients need flexibility in their calendars,” Bartasi said. “I think, historically speaking, in health care, the patient did whatever the doctor did, whatever the doctor told them to do, and at Kindbody the patient is in charge, not necessarily the doctor.”

You can see this approach in nearly all of Kindbody’s services. Not only does Kindbody want to cater to how its potential patients carry on their lives, it wants them to have a familiar experience as well. Open Kindbody’s website, and you’ll find a templatized, user-friendly landing page with photos of well-designed offices and links to its social media. It’s a familiar look for the 2020s at this point, and that’s intentional.

At the end of the day, you can have the best technology and the best data, but [patients] are still at home crying; it sucks and [they] can’t get out of bed in the morning. Barbara Collura, president of Resolve

With both B2B and B2C income streams, this company is trying to significantly disrupt the women’s healthcare space by focusing on educating, helping patients feel cared for and offering solutions to major pain points through employer-provided benefits.

As Bartasi mentioned in part 1 of this TC-1, she felt like she was treated as the subordinate to the doctor throughout her fertility journey, and her team at Kindbody has put in a lot of work to avoid that.

“It’s really a broken system”

Thanks to the nature of their relationships with the space, both Bartasi and Dr. Fahimeh Sasan, Kindbody’s current chief innovation officer and an experienced board-certified OBGYN, are familiar with the challenges of the fertility journey from two different perspectives — the patient and the provider. They found that the overarching challenge, which ultimately makes every step of this process more difficult, is the fragmentation of care.

Dr. Fahimeh Sasan, Kindbody’s current chief innovation officer

Dr. Fahimeh Sasan, Kindbody’s chief innovation officer. Image Credits: Kindbody

“It’s really a broken system, and it’s a system that in no way, shape or form is based on proven human health nor on being proactive,” said Dr. Sasan. “It’s a 100% reactionary system. I was taught that you wait for a woman to prove that she’s not fertile and she has to prove her infertility diagnosis before you start doing testing and see if that’s what the problem may be.”

This reactionary approach is something she’s always felt needed to be corrected. She offers examples of how other ailments or potential health problems are addressed with the aim to prevent rather than cure.

“You do stress tests so that someone doesn’t have a heart attack. We do mammograms to detect breast changes before someone has breast cancer.” But when it comes to infertility, patients have to prove they are experiencing it before it can be addressed. She believes that the teaching and, subsequently, the care, have not caught up with the technology available for patients.

“If you think about the advancements that have been in this field, whether it’s the first egg-freezing or hormone-testing, like for the Anti-Müllerian hormone, and even the capabilities of ultrasound and sonogram, the teachings haven’t changed.”

NotCo gets its horn following $235M round to expand plant-based food products

NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, wrapped up another funding round this year, a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Tiger Global led the round and was joined by new investors, including DFJ Growth Fund, the social impact foundation, ZOMA Lab; athletes Lewis Hamilton and Roger Federer; and musician and DJ Questlove. Follow-on investors included Bezos Expeditions, Enlightened Hospitality Investments, Future Positive, L Catterton and Kaszek Ventures.

This funding round follows an undisclosed investment in June from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer through his firm EHI. In total, NotCo, with roots in both Chile and New York, has raised more than $350 million, founder and CEO Matias Muchnick told TechCrunch.

Currently, the company has four product lines: NotMilk, NotBurger and NotMeat, NoticeCream and NotMayo, which are available in the five countries of the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

The company is operating in the middle of a trend toward eating healthier food, as more consumers also question how their food is made, resulting in demand for alternative proteins. In fact, the market for alternative meat, eggs, dairy and seafood products is predicted to reach $290 billion by 2035, according to research by Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corp.

NotCo’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology, Giuseppe, matches animal proteins to their ideal replacements among thousands of plant-based ingredients. It is working to crack the code in understanding the molecular components and food characteristics in the combination of two ingredients that could mimic milk, but in a more sustainable and resourceful way — and that also tastes good, which is the biggest barrier to adoption, Muchnick said.

“Our theory is that there is a crazy dynamic among people: 60% who are already eating plant-based are not happy with the taste, and 30% of those who drink cow’s milk are waiting to change if there is a similar taste,” he added. “Our technology is based in AI so that we can create a different food system, as well as products faster and better than others in the space. There are 300,000 plant species, and we still have no idea what 99% of them can do.”

In addition to a flow of investments this year, the company launched its NotMilk brand in the United States seven months ago and is on track to be in 8,000 locations across retailers like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts and Wegmans by the end of 2021.

Muchnick plans to allocate some of the new funding to establish markets in Mexico and Canada and add market share in the U.S. and Chile. He expects to have 50% of its business coming from the U.S. over the next three years. He is also eyeing an expansion into Asia and Europe in the next year.

NotCo also intends to add more products, like chicken and other white meats and seafood, and to invest in technology and R&D. He expects to do that by doubling the company’s current headcount of 100 in the next two years. Muchnick also wants to establish more patents in food science — the company already has five — and to explore a potential intelligence side of the business.

Though NotCo reached unicorn status, Muchnick said the real prize is the brand awareness and subsequent sales boost, as well as opening doors for quick-service restaurant deals. NotBurger went into Burger King restaurants in Chile 11 months ago, and now has 5% of the market there, he added.

Sales overall have grown three times annually over the past four years, something Muchnick said was attractive to Tiger Global. He is equally happy to work with Tiger, especially as the company prepares to go public in the next two or three years. He said Tiger’s expertise will get NotCo there in a more prepared manner.

“NotCo has created world class plant-based food products that are rapidly gaining market share,” said Scott Shleifer, partner at Tiger Global, in a written statement. “We are excited to partner with Matias and his team. We expect continued product innovation and expansion into new geographies and food categories will fuel high and sustainable growth for years to come.”


My experience with the CARES Act was frustrating, confusing and unfair

As a small business owner, I was excited to learn about the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that offers low-interest loans to firms impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as I read through the details and began to apply, it became clear that this legislation — while well-intentioned — may not be enough to help many SMBs and startups.

Here’s a quick recap of my experience.

Emergency Economic Injury Grants and Economic Injury Disaster Loans

First and foremost: You need to act swiftly. Emergency Economic Injury Grant and Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs included in the CARES Act function on a first-come, first-served basis, and are funded from a limited pool of resources.

I began my company’s application process by submitting our EIDL and EEIG applications through the SBA website. This was easy, if tedious. It took about two hours to complete the necessary online forms and about two seconds to click the EEIG checkbox. Submission was seamless, but I haven’t received any further communication from the SBA since completing my application, which is a bit confusing — EEIG funds are supposed to be dispersed within 3-5 days of the submission date.

However, I know there’s been a huge volume of submissions recently and this must be exceptionally difficult to handle. I look forward to any email correspondence or updates from the SBA that might give me — and other applicants — an updated estimate of the expected dispersal timeline.