2011 May: Now Boarding

Bill Brunner, owner of Brunner’s Eatery in Hamburg, New York, is a man in love — with his electronic menu board, which he’s had two years. “It’s wonderful. People come in and they’re so impressed when they see it,” he says. “I can make changes on it instantly and from home; I don’t need to be in the restaurant.”

Brunner has used a variety of menu boards during his 32 years in business; the one he had prior to his current electronic version was a vinyl panel with vinyl lettering. When changes were
required, he had to call in the company to make them –– “If I could get the guy to come in at all,” he adds.

“Plus it was expensive,” Brunner says. “Just to change out the prices was several hundred dollars; and if I had to change an entire panel, it could run as high as $1,500.”

Consequently, the board was typically more outdated than current, and menu/price changes were announced on various pieces of paper taped here and there.

That approach is pretty typical when restaurants rely on static menu boards, says Mark Evans, CEO/president of ElectroMenu LLC, a Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of digital menu systems. When it comes to menu boards, most restaurant operators don’t think strategically enough, he says.

“It’s not that they don’t pay attention to their menu boards; they just don’t plan for how much room and the flexibility they’ll need,” Evans explains. “What ends up happening is that it becomes a tsunami of paper and Scotch tape.”

Where many operators err is in thinking of their menu boards as just a place to list items and prices instead of also being a marketing tool, says Terry J. Duckworth, president/CEO of Menu-Cast, a manufacturer of digital menu boards headquartered in Maize, Kansas.

“They fail to realize the suggestive selling that high-end digital boards will create,” he says. “They often make the menu board the last thing they consider purchasing when opening a restaurant; it gets whatever is left over in the budgeting process.”

But this is a common failing among operators no matter what kind of menu board they have, says Linda Lipsky, president of Linda Lipsky Restaurant Consultants, a Broomall, Pennsylvania-based consulting company that focuses on the operational aspect.

“Just like a printed menu, a menu board is a marketing tool that will help you drive sales,” she says.

Lipsky has seen her share of menu board mistakes like misspellings, broken slates (in the case of slider boards), bad photos and boards that are hard to see and even harder to make sense of (especially if they are covered in flyers). Menu boards must be direct and to the point, she explains. They must have sufficient color contrast and glare, and reflection must be avoided. Order is also important; the board should follow the proper standardized sequencing as a printed menu, starting off with appetizers, salads, etc., leading into the main menu items and ending with desserts.

“The most important quality is flexibility,” says Lipsky. “I’ve seen people pay a lot of money for sliders and then clip a piece of paper over it to
announce a special or some change.”

This is why Brunner opted for an electronic board and why Tyler Duncan, president of Rusty’s Pizza Parlor, did the same. Duncan, who has restaurants located in Santa Barbara, Bakersfield and Ventura, California, was using slider boards — fine if you have just a few locations, but challenging if you have multiple sites, he says.

Now “we are able to communicate with customers and update pricing faster than ever,” says Duncan, adding that portions of their boards also highlight community outreach programs.

Menu boards should boost sales, says Duckworth. Brunner thinks his board has done just that, particularly because he’s now able to display photos of his food on the board — another reason why he went digital. Brunner has four panels, each of which has related photos that change approximately every four seconds (he has about 45 photos in all). These have helped drive add-on sales, he says.

In fact, Evans says that because they’re easier to read and present the information in an enticing way, electronic boards can increase walk-in business by anywhere from 10 to
20 percent or more.

Duncan thinks electronic boards are the future arrived now.

“Gone are the days of sliding plastic, replacing fluorescent bulbs, and food photos that have turned green,” he says. The boards “are fast, flexible and real-time. It’s a tool that will give us a competitive advantage for years to come.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.

Building a better board

Regardless of what kind of menu board you’re considering, consultant Linda Lipsky suggests you keep the following pointers in mind:

Don’t make them overly descriptive. “You can’t go into too much detail, but you do need to mention key characteristics and common
allergens like eggs or peanuts,” she says.

Consider how cost-effective the board is to change, update and maintain, and if you can do this yourself or must rely on the company to handle this.

Make sure the board fits physically within your dimensions and parameters, that it’s visible from all areas of the restaurant and glare-free. Remember that kids need to see it, too.

Proof and proof again. Don’t rely on the company to catch spelling errors. “It’s your menu and your spelling,” she explains. “They won’t know what to fix because the spelling could be unique to your restaurant.”

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