When it comes to menu boards, going high-tech isn’t always the right choice. Whether it’s digital screens or old-school chalkboards, the decision goes beyond what looks pretty. “[It’s] one of the first things that people are going to see when they come in, so obviously you want it to be representative of your company and your brand,” says Joe Sanders, director of marketing for 17-unit Meatheads Burgers & Fries.
Some operators are drawn to digital signage to showcase high-resolution food photos or easily swap out a daily special. For Craig Bernstein, owner of Doc B’s Fresh Kitchen in Chicago, it was the ability to link with his POS system. “Pricing can adjust with the click of a button,” he says. Or if the kitchen runs out of something, “we’re never more than five minutes away from making those changes.” Bernstein estimates the cost of four to five screens at $20,000 each for his two stores, along with a nominal yearly maintenance fee for software and content hosting.
Though digital has its perks, not all operators want to go high-tech. For the oyster menu at Ironside Fish & Oyster in San Diego, designer Paul Basile crafted marquee-style signs that are essentially lightboxes with acrylic shelves to hold store-bought letters. “It’s easy to change for specials pretty quickly, and that was a lot of the reasoning around it,” Basile says.
Meatheads similarly went with a flexible, low-tech solution. Its stores feature menu boards with magnetic pieces that staffers can switch out to reflect seasonal specials and price changes. “We’re trying to have the environment where people will unwind a little bit, so I don’t want the business of a digital board flashing around,” Sanders says. Each magnetic menu board costs about $2,000, and new magnetic pieces are ordered and sent to stores as needed.
Signs of the times
Chalkboards have made a comeback in recent years. While many choose them for ease of rewrites, Gail Taggart, president of LYFE Kitchen franchisee L3 Hospitality Group, works with an artist seasonally to have beverage menus painted on chalkboards for LYFE’s Chicago locations. Taggart opted for this less flexible aesthetic, because the menu of local beer and wine doesn’t often change, she says.
Working with an artist does add to the P&L, though. “Getting a large chalkboard made, laid out and then written in a way that’s going to be really up to our standards is thousands of dollars,” says Taggart. “We feel the cost is worth it … I think they are a more personal and approachable way to present a menu to customers.”
With more consumers gravitating towards “frictionless” service, LYFE also is working on a mobile-ordering app and looking into self-serve kiosks, rendering menu boards unnecessary for tech-savvy guests.
But Taggart can’t see either technology prompting her to eliminate menu signage. “That’s not an expense that I want to manage down to zero,” she says. “I want to give the guest the menu in the format they’re most comfortable with.”
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