Checkers is using Presto’s AI voice bot to take drive-thru orders. / Photo courtesy of Presto
In looking for its interim CEO, Presto could have done a lot worse than Krishna Gupta.
The 35-year-old is the restaurant automation company’s chairman and its largest shareholder. He was also its first investor, back in 2008, when he was running a venture capital firm out of his dorm room at MIT.
Presto founder and former CEO Rajat Suri was also at MIT at the time, but dropped out to develop Presto’s first product, a pay-at-the-table system that consisted of a tablet and a payment device held together with duct tape. Gupta was involved from the beginning.
“Our first implementation of the technology was at this pub next to MIT called The Asgard,” he recalled. “We used to sit there, and I was writing trivia questions, because our initial tablet would provide trivia, and we were running out of questions.”
That ground-floor experience has given Gupta “co-founder-level passion” in the business, he said.
Presto has come a long way from its origins at a campus watering hole. It’s now a public company with shares traded on the NASDAQ, and its technology is used by hundreds of restaurant chains. It still offers a more advanced version of that first tabletop ordering device. But in recent years, its focus has turned to another tool designed to ease restaurants’ labor pains: an AI voice bot that can take drive-thru orders.
After 15 years running the company, Suri announced this week that he is leaving to pursue other endeavors. Gupta intends to continue what he started.
“For me, coming on as CEO right now should signal to the market that nothing has changed in our strategy,” he said. “We’re just doubling down now on voice AI, and really it’s generative AI.”
Presto’s voice bot can take drive-thru orders and make suggestions, or upsells. It can be programmed to speak in a variety of voices. And it is integrating with OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot to help make its responses faster and more human-like.
“No one has really figured out how to make these voices in real time sound just perfect,” Gupta said. “We’re getting closer. We can do Ben Affleck’s voice.”
Presto says it’s the largest drive-thru voice system in the U.S., providing three out of every four drive-thru voice assistants. Checkers/Rally’s and Del Taco are customers, and Gupta said there is “more excitement” on that front that he can’t share just yet.
He said drive-thru voice is an easy sell for big chains that want to lower labor costs and redeploy workers to other tasks. Winning over investors has been another story. Since going public in September, Presto’s share price has languished in the low single digits and is down more than 30% year to date.
Some investors are simply not willing to take a chance on an emerging technology that generated just over $30 million in revenue last year. Others want to catch the wave as it grows. As an investor himself, Gupta understands both sides.
“I think we’re definitely making progress” in terms of educating investors, he said. “And I think one of the other reasons I’m excited to take this role is I’m part of the investor community.”
Gupta is the founder and CEO of Remus Capital, a venture capital firm focused on AI startups across a range of industries. He believes that expertise will be valuable as he guides Presto in the near-term.
Though his title says “interim” and the board has formed a search committee to find a permanent chief, Gupta said that person could ultimately be him.
But he also noted that Presto has strong existing leadership, as evidenced by a pair of promotions announced Thursday: Chief Revenue Officer Dan Mosher is now president, and Chief Product Officer Xavier Casanova is now COO. Both are new roles for the company.
Given Presto’s “deep bench,” “I don’t think the company will need me after a certain point,” Gupta said.
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