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Digital Signage in Quick Service Restaurants: Food for Thought in Utilizing Electronic Menu Systems
By Louis M. Brill
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
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™."
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."
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
"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."
"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
"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."
National Brand DMS Deployment
"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."
Beck's Prime Restaurants
"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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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