2010 April: Guiding Lights

“Like moths to the flame.” That’s how Britt Taylor, owner of Bright Neon Signs in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, describes the effect that neon pizza signs have on potential customers. Hungry consumers see a slice of their favorite pie all lit up in neon, and suddenly, there’s nothing they want more than to pull into your parking lot and have a meal.

“Pizza was one of the first neons ever to be made, and it’s one of the most successful,” he says. “I think it’s the glow. Since most pizza restaurants tend to be in reds, yellows and greens, neon’s reddish glow is a perfect fit.”

Frank Marro, owner of Marro’s Restaurant in Saugatuck, Michigan, is one of those who can vouch for the popularity of neon signs. Marro’s has boasted the same neon sign since the company opened back in the ‘50s. In fact, the sign has been there so long that it’s been grandfathered into town laws, making it the only outdoor neon sign in Saugatuck.

“Everybody loves our sign,” Marro says. “So many people take pictures of it, and all of our customers talk about it.” The sign has been so popular that it has become part of Marro’s logo, and they’re adding it to their pizza boxes and T-shirts.

Neon signs aren’t anything new: they’ve been promoting businesses for a long while. “People started making neon in the early 1900s,” says Matthew Severson, owner of Fire House Neon in Stockbridge, Michigan. “So as a profession, it’s been tried and tested for over a hundred years. The only older professional is the unmentionable one.”

In their simplest sense, the signs are made of glass tubes filled with neon gas. While neon is colorless and odorless in its natural form, once you heat it inside glass discharge tubes, it takes on a gorgeous reddish-orange glow. To get additional colors, some signs are made with colored glass while others use other gases, such as argon, which gives off a purple hue.

Neon signs are pretty and popular, but they can be a big upfront investment, running from a few hundred dollars up to the thousands. So why bother?

For one thing, neon signs give a lot of bang for their buck. “If you take care of a neon sign, it will last you forever,” says Taylor. Maintenance is fairly minimal; every five to seven years, you might need a new transformer, which costs anywhere from $50 to $80 for an indoor sign, and up to $150 for an outdoor, waterproof sign. “You figure, if you only have to spend 70 bucks every five or seven years, that’s still a great investment,” he adds.

Despite their brightness, neon signs are surprisingly power-efficient. “Most neon signs take less than one-quarter of a watt to run,” says Severson. “That’s about two to ten cents per day.” He says most people would be surprised to realize they spend far more money and electricity on other things, such as outdoor parking lights.

Neon signs aren’t as popular these days as they once were. New technologies, such as LED lights, are replacing the good ole neon glow. But there are big benefits for companies that keep the old while they usher in the new. “Having both neon and LED signs is like giving a one-two punch,” says Severson. “LED lights are more flexible, so you can inform about tomorrow’s special while neons are vibrant, they add life, they entertain and grab your attention.”

If you’re considering purchasing a neon sign, there are a number of things to take into account before you plunk your money down. First, choose your display wisely. A clear, uncluttered sign that features your business name, logo and any specialties is always a good bet.

Ideally, buy from someone you know and trust. While mass-manufactured neon signs from overseas can be cheap to purchase, they often end up costing more in the long run.

Materials matter as well. The thicker, the better when it comes to glass tubing. Thicker tubing is harder to bend, but is less prone to breakage, and uses less electricity. In addition, a nine- or twelve-volt transformer will give a great glow without draining your energy budget.

Neon signs might seem like a thing of the past, but they’re a great way to brand your business for the future. And they draw loyal customers like no other type of sign. There is even a whole segment of customer that will come to your establishment just because of your neon sign –– and best yet, they might even do your advertising for you.

“Our sign is a huge draw for customers,” says Donald Bishop, manager of two Pizza King restaurants in Marion, Indiana, about the company’s 50-yearold rooftop sign, which measures 25 feet by four feet. “There are people that go around and take pictures of neon signs and they post the pictures online. It’s great for us.”

Turns out, that gorgeous red glow really does draw customers to your business like moths to the flame. Now all you have to do is keep them there. ?

The Care & Feeding of Neon Signs

Outdoor signs can be taken down during the winter, but it’s not necessary. One thing to be aware of, however: the colder the weather, the dimmer the neon glow. If it gets really, really cold, the neon might not spark at all.

Dust happens. Especially in pizza places. “Pizza restaurants have a combination of high humidity, fl our and moisture that can gum up neon signs,” says Matthew Severson, owner of Fire House Neon in Stockbridge, Michigan. “It basically creates a big baseball mitt that captures dust and critters.” Get enough of it and the sign could develop ‘hot spots’, or points where it burns out. Use a swiffer-type duster once a month to keep down static electricity and build-up.

If you break a tube, you have two options: throw it away or take it to a neon sign shop and see how much it will cost to repair. Some tubes, especially clear ones, are easier to repair, and thus cheaper, while colored tubes are more complicated and may have to be thrown away.

Shanna Germain is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. She loves to write about both food and drink, and her articles have appeared in Cheers, Delicious Living, Imbibe and Oregon Home.

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