A restaurant in Cardiff has become the first in Wales to embrace the power of artificial intelligence (AI) – a move that reflects a growing momentum in the hospitality industry to embrace increasingly sophisticated technology in this field.

The Smoke Haus – a Wales owned restaurant brand that specialises in slow-cooked barbequed meats –  has launched BBQ Babs, the ‘Haus’ chatbot, at its Cardiff restaurant, located on Mary Ann Street near the Motorpoint Arena. It plans to roll out its BBQ Babs chatbot to its other premises in Swansea and Birmingham later this year.

BBQ Babs was developed specifically for The Smoke Haus by Cardiff software development partnership The Social Code – a joint venture between Glad People and Arriba Systems. Chatbots are software programmes, which can include AI components, designed to interact with people over messaging apps such as, Facebook Messenger, Twitter Direct Message, Slack, Kik, Telegram and WeChat.

BBQ Babs is one of the latest chatbots to be developed within the UK for use by the hospitality industry. Gartner, the US research and advisory firm providing information technology related insight, suggests that over the next three years we can expect to see an increase in chatbots within the hospitality industry – with research predicting that by 2021, more than 50 per cent of businesses will spend more on developing chatbots per annum, than traditional mobile apps. It also suggests that by 2020, customers will manage 85 per cent of their engagement with a restaurant without interacting with any of the staff in human form.

The trend of mobile applications is beginning to fade, due to the idea that consumers are finding the extra step of downloading and storing these apps on their phone an inconvenience. Instead of these apps, developers are turning to the chatbot, which can be used through applications such as the Facebook Messenger app.

By scanning a special code or clicking the Facebook Messenger link – which brings The Smoke Haus’ BBQ Babs to life in the Facebook Messenger app – customers will be able to ask BBQ Babs a range of questions from the menu, and even choose the music in the restaurant by chatting with the ‘Bot’. They will also be rewarded with loyalty points and discounts the more they engage with BBQ Babs or when they recommend people to join the programme.

And the conversation need not end when the meal is over. Customers can continue to engage with BBQ Babs at any time – a useful tool for booking tables and checking on menu updates or special offers ahead of their next visit.

Mark Power, managing director of The Smoke Haus, said:

“We already have some great staff and our personal touch will very much remain as a business, but BBQ Babs will bring an extra dimension to our offering at The Smoke Haus. We are delighted with the way this has been embraced by our customers so far. As a business, it brings us closer to our customers at all times and that will be fantastic for them and us.

“The fantastic thing about BBQ Babs is, because BBQ Babs is powered by artificial intelligence, she is also learning all the time. That means that she will get to know the needs and wishes of customers more and more intimately as time goes on, giving our customers an even better and more bespoke service as we look to build a truly memorable experience.”

Jon Gibbs, director of Arriba Systems, added:

“We are delighted to work with Mark and deliver the best service for his customers. Customer behaviour has changed – smart phones dominate how we communicate, with consumers demanding simple to use technology without the need of user browsers or download dedicated apps. With Facebook Messenger’s huge smart phone distribution, it makes the perfect choice for consumer facing businesses looking to increase customer engagement, customer satisfaction or sales.

“As consumer needs change, businesses must change too. Take our customer loyalty solution.  No one can expect customers to keep a physical loyalty card. We developed BBQ Babs because it resides on Facebook Messenger, so people don’t need to download anything or even register. Just scan a code and you start earning points. Customers’ smart phones are always present.

“This year we are planning to allow people to order their meals from the chatbot and make a table reservation. Powered by “Whizzy” our artificial intelligence module, the technology will allow consumers to interact in a natural language format enabling increased self service and speed of transaction. 

“The chatbot solution combines commercial benefits with a fun, friendly and engaging interface for consumers.”