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Menu it digitally

Digital menu boards provide virtually limitless opportunities for merchandising menu items. Additions or revisions—to accommodate nutritional postings or price changes—can be made quickly. And for multi-unit operations, centralized control of the menu is especially important.

Initial decisions

Before you buy, consider what you want your menu board to do. Will it simply be a digital version of your current menu board, or will you use it for promotions and upselling? “If it looks identical to a printed menu board and there’s nothing else happening—no changing of pricing, no moving around of items—how is that going to increase your sales?” asks Richard Ventura, director of sales for NEC Display Solutions. Dan Smith, director of digital signage for LG Electronics USA, agrees that operators need to look at objectives. “Are they trying to add more fries with the burger? Are they trying to sell more sides? Whatever their strategy...it should be reflected in what goes on a digital menu board.”

Next, decide how frequently the graphics will change. For an operation with limited hours and a limited menu, an unchanging menu board may be sufficient. But to maximize selling potential, dayparting the board may be necessary. For example, “the person who’s frequenting a QSR Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. is very different from the customer at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday,” says Smith, so it’s essential that the software can be programmed to change featured items at different times of the day, or on different days of the week.

The simplest, single-unit digital menu board systems have very basic, user-friendly programs that use jpeg graphics or even PowerPoint software for the display. For more sophisticated effects or video integration, you’ll want to go with a third-party software package. Most digital signage vendors either provide software programming services or can recommend a partner.

Picture this

Photography becomes critical when dealing with the sharpness of digital displays.That slightly fuzzy burger photo which looked just OK on a printed menu board will appear unappealing in digital. You might consider using a professional food photographer and/or stylist. Jessica Weatherhead, a Boston-based food stylist, says that a photo needs to provide “information” about the individual components of a menu item to help drive purchase decisions. Using action to add appetite appeal is also key, she says. “If you want special effects such as steam rising off coffee, or butter melting on a baked potato, the average restaurateur isn’t going to be able to do that with a simple SLR camera.”

Look closely at the size and resolution of the display screen you’re considering. Is it large and sharp enough to be read easily from behind the ordering counter? More importantly, are the components—screen, computer and/or server—durable enough to withstand constant use in the hot and often greasy restaurant environment? “You’re not going to put in a $400 Dell computer to run the digital signage system…it’ not designed to run 24 hours a day,” says Ventura.

A good resource—particularly if you’re a newbie to digital menus—is the website of the Digital Signage Federation, www.digitalsignagefederation.org. One section is geared to restaurants, highlighted by a list of questions to ask vendors.

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