"Welcome back. Would you like to order the same thing you ordered Tuesday at 5:37 p.m.?"

By Mike Pomranz
Updated: July 16, 2019

Recognizing regulars has been a part of the restaurant industry since restaurants began. “Hello, Mr. Pomranz. Good to see you again. We have your favorite table waiting” is a great way to be greeted. But if a host you’ve never met before mentions he noticed you have a mutual friend on Facebook (this really happened to me once), then things may have gone too far. Turns out the “gone too far” era may be coming to fast food chains.

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Some fast food brands are toying with the idea of using license plate recognition technology (the kind of thing used in speed traps) to track customers and provide them with additional features like customized ordering screens, according to the Financial Times. Clearly, there are benefits here: Beyond just customized menus, chains could offer other conveniences like linking your car to a loyalty program or even a credit card, making payment a breeze. This technology could almost certainly speed up drive-thru times — a major industry concern.

But at the same time, part of the allure of the drive-thru is that your car makes you a bit more incognito. That’s out the door when tracking technology knows you’ve eaten at the same burger joint five times in the last three days. Not to even mention the question of whether this data could be mined beyond the people who “opt in” to its services.

But regardless of these concerns, as is often the case, it appears these changes are about to happen whether we like it or not: FT says these systems have been used in Korea, trialed in North America, and the tech companies behind them expect to sign their first big deal in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Of course, an argument could be made that license plate recognition serves the greater good. One company said it can help a fast food drive-thru handle 30 extra cars per day, speeding up wait times for everyone. That’s probably for the best: The longer you have to wait, the more time you have to think about how the fast food restaurants are watching you, man.

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