Dynamic Digital Signage in Quick Service Restaurants: Food for Thought in Utilizing Electronic Menu Systems
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Digital Signage in Quick Service Restaurants: Food for Thought in Utilizing Electronic Menu Systems

Take a heaping helping of several LCD screens, add a dash of CAT 5 cable, stir in one or more media servers, several players, and a spice of restaurant-specific sign content and viola: one finely cooked digital menu signage system specific to the QSR industry.

By Louis M. Brill

The Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) community is represented by a vast array of fast food and casual restaurants and has come upon some new ingredients that they've added to their food service mix.

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  • Take a heaping helping of several LCD screens, add a dash of CAT 5 cable, stir in one or more media servers, several players, and a spice of restaurant-specific sign content and viola: one finely cooked digital menu signage system specific to the QSR industry.

    Since time immortal, restaurants and cafes have relied upon printed menus to inform their customers of what to eat. In the digital sign age, it's without a doubt that digital menu signage (DMS) is a perfect fit to updating their menus and customer ordering systems with obvious benefits of day parting, real time menu changes, and the use of streaming graphics and animations to better promote their food offerings to encourage sales lift from their hungry customers.

    As a current digital signage trend in bringing electronic media communications to various QSR institutions, SignIndustry.com has explored this trend by interviewing two full service sign integrators and several quick service restaurant end users who operate these DMS systems as part of their restaurant service operation.

    Epicure Digital Systems
    Epicure Digital Systems (Beverly Hills, CA - est. 2000) is a digital menu board company uniquely integrating its expertise in software technology, restaurant operations and food service marketing to create digital signage products and services for the food service industry. Its core product is the Epicure Digital Menu System. Its major services are menu engineering, nutritional menu labeling, and content creation. The company also coordinates installation and provides ongoing support for their food service clients

    The company designs customized digital menu boards that solve their client's complex menu engineering and point-of-sale marketing issues. By creatively combining menu information, animations, imagery and food photography, they have produced visually compelling multimedia menus and promotions that Harvey Friedman, President and Founder of Epicure Digital, says, "Help sell menu items and enhance the dining experience. We call this experience: The Cure for the Menu Bored™."

    Menu boards from Epicure Digital
    The three menu boards show a diversity in how food offerings are presented to customers. Color, graphics, food photography and text are critical elements in menu design. Equally import is food information content including name of food offering ingredients, price and nutritional information. Over design reflects the personality of the restaurant or cafe.

    Possible clients include fast food brands, fast casual restaurants and institutional cafeterias that might appear in corporate settings, colleges, casino/gaming resorts, or hospital dining areas. In each case this is a client type, whose food service differs depending on their food service business model. Fast food venues tend to have a fixed menu of continual offering divided by time of day (day parting for breakfast, lunch dinner), where as an institutional cafeteria will have a daily menu with more choices, and different food offerings each day.

    Once contacted by a potential client, stated president Harvey Friedman, "We begin by getting an understanding of the restaurant's physical space, and a sense of how its customer traffic flows from its entrance towards the service counter and point of sale locations. We then consider possible locations for LCD displays and determine the amount and size of the displays."

    Digital menu creation is a multi-stage process as described by Friedman. "Menu Board locations are usually defined by the ease of viewability by where the customer ordering lines are in relation to viewing these menu boards. Possible sign locations could include near the entrance to the facility, but mostly wind up suspended overhead, on the wall behind the ordering counter. In some instances, like a buffet set up where food offerings are presented by several food stations, there is the possibility of a 'decentralized' digital menu set up where a digital menu is presented at each food station."

    "In a Phase II design, a marketing approach is used to evaluate menu strategy and menu content decisions. Content considerations include a number of menu categories, food items, descriptions, price points and day parts. Food offerings will define menu design including food photography, illustrations and text and graphics, all which becomes the fill material of the menu presentation. Display legibility is very important and defined by viewing distance between customer and display, font style and size, customer age range and store lighting."

    "We do distinguish several types of displays including the actual menu boards which present that day's food offerings and also what is known as a Greeter Board, which provides marketing information, promotional information, community news and nutritional information."

    At Moffitt Cafe at UCFS Hospital, food ordering is sub-divided into six themed food preparation zones, each with its own digital sign menu presenting food selections of that kitchen area.
    Photo Credit: Louis M. Brill

    Protecting LCD screens from kitchen vapors
    While digital signage appears within many different business environments, in the restaurant industry there is the particular challenge from their kitchens and the generation of continuous heat and grease and food particulate matter into the nearby air as potential contaminants to the LCD displays. "The solution to air-born contaminants is our use of NEC LCD displays which are specifically designed to counter this," stated Friedman. "In their LCD screen design, NEC addressed this issue by sealing their electronics. As for heat, most kitchens have a very good venting set up, but when necessary, we'll locate the LCD screens far enough away from a cooking area as to not be a problem."

    UCSF - Moffit Café
    One client of Epicure Digital is the University of California (Parnassus campus) Medical Center (San Francisco, CA) which hosts Moffitt Café (366 seat full service cafe) and operates its venue with a major Digital Menu System presence. The Cafe maintains seven digital displays, six which represent various food stations and one display (two screens) which acts as a Greeter Board.

    "Moffitt Cafe's food offering is represented by six serving stations including Grill, Deli, Pizza, Chef's Table, Entrée (comfort food) and Fresh Start (salads). Each of these serving stations has its own dedicated DMS," stated Dan Henroid, Director of Nutrition & Food Services at Moffitt Café. "Each sign's content is themed to what food is served at that station."

    At Moffitt Cafe at UCFS Hospital, as customers approach Fresh Start food station, digital menu is first thing they encounter.
    Photo Credit: Louis M. Brill

    "Depending on the time of day most of each sign's menu content (when applicable) is subdivided into 'day parts' (breakfast, lunch, mid afternoon snack and dinner) and each day part automatically switches over at the appropriate time. The sign's system menu content is programmable and we usually program a week in advance of its being displayed at the Café. Menu construction is very important to us, and aside from our food offerings, we also include nutritional information including calories, carbohydrates, fats and sodium levels of each listed food."

    Greeter Boards Digital Displays
    "Aside from the menu boards," Henroid said, "we also have two Greeter Boards combined together which function as a Café promotion that introduces the Café and the campus to our customers as they enter the Café. The top board presents various marketing visual elements and an RSS feed which includes "news" and other information about the campus and school system."

    "The bottom Greeter Board is a 'specials' menu board that presents the Café's daily special menu items. Thus when a customer enters the Café, they can immediately learn about all the food specials of that day."

    "As for the DMS functionality in our Café, it's made a difference in several ways. Our menus are automatically changed in keeping up with the passing of the day," noted Henroid, "and we include nutritional information embedded in the menus and thus, if we have sudden menu changes we don't have to print anything up - some simple data entry and we then have our updated menu right there."

    From UCSF Moffitt Cafe digital menu operation
    Moffitt Cafe Greeter Board digital display gives customer a basic overview of Cafe and that day's food specials just as they walk into Cafe.

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    National Brand DMS Deployment
    Although there are situations where a DMS is installed within a single or several restaurants in a local market, there is also the national brand situation where a single food menu system may appear anywhere from 10 to 100 of stores around the country.

    "For a national brand, its needs are different than a local cafeteria, where their menu needs are very specific," stated Friedman. "In managing a singular menu across the entire chain, on time and all at the same time to any part of its chain, be it a regional or national arena -- a change in a menu selection, a specific sale or holiday offering -- it can all be entered into their master control file, uploaded to the main menu, and all changed at the click of a mouse."

    Becks Prime Restaurant incorporates both a four-screen Epicure digital display over the ordering counter, plus a greeter screen at front hallway entrance to restaurant.
    Photo Credit: Becks Prime Restaurant

    Beck's Prime Restaurants
    Becks Prime Restaurants has twelve restaurants (all located in Houston) of which four of them have a DMS system as part of each of those venues. According to President Molly Voorhees, "All of our new stores as well as those being remodeled (when appropriate), all have digital menu signage as part of each of those restaurant operations."

    "We began installing digital menu signage in 2008 by placing four LCD screens over our ordering counter and combined with a Greeter Board where we run a three-minute video presentation on our restaurant and menu. What appealed to us was its flexibility in its ease of use in changing menu content, the reduced the need for printed signage and the ability to use video."


    Four Winds interactive
    Another company effective in QSR DSM management is Four Winds interactive, (Denver, CO), a software company specializing in interactive digital signage solutions for retail, hospitality, airport arrival/departure signage, wayfinding and digital menu boards. Company president, David Levin, noted that Four Winds interactive has done at least 50 DSM installations servicing QSRs, restaurants cafeterias, and school campuses.

    Straw Hat Pizza employs a double overhead digital menu sign for customer ordering.
    Photo Credit: Four Winds interactive

    Levin observed that "there is definitely an increased interest by food service establishments to install digital sign menus (DSM) in their various venues. We're seeing inquiries everywhere from national and regional brands to local area restaurants. They're all interested in the same thing - finding more effective ways of communicating to their customers. As for transferring to a digital signage system, all the benefits are there, from changing menu information in real time, day parting of sale items and menu changes, and more effective promoting both menu items and the restaurant experience."

    "As for getting a food service establishment along the path of DMS, we coordinate this through a needs-analysis review; briefing the customer on their digital sign options, LCD screen types and sizes, display locations, menu design and identification of content sources."

    "Typically we also visit their location to understand their physical space and how we can enhance it with a proposed digital signage system. We then help analize how their customers encounter the order area, how their existing menus look, and ultimately, how digital displays can enhance their customer experience while at the same time provide a revenue increasing opportunity for the restaurant."

    Print vs. Digital Signage
    "As for print signage, it is still going to be a big part of food service communications for a long time", stated Friedman. "In the short term what you will see in these eateries will be most likely a hybrid sign package, combining both print and digital menu signage. Many restaurants, particularly new venue operations will automatically incorporate digital menu signage from the beginning of their set up, in other cases some eateries may just start with only a Greeter Board digital sign used to sell product and give a sales lift to boost the average lunch or dinner selections. Once a restaurant or cafe owner sees the results and benefits of a Greeter Board display, they are more likely to opt for a full digital menu system at a later date."

    Another reason for establishing Digital Menu Signage that both Friedman and Levin pointed out is the recent passage of a new Federal Law that states "every big restaurant chain in the nation will now be required to put calorie information on their menus and drive-through signs. Displaying this information electronically will be much more efficient than going through the hassle and costs associated with constantly reprinting and changing printed signage as menu items change.

    Levin noted in closing, "As for the future of DMS, it's hard to predict the time period for this transition, but we see it only as a matter of time before all food service establishments will have Digital Menu Signage as the main communications component in their customer ordering areas." And that is certainly an appetizing thought for DMS integrators.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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