** This is an excerpt from the Fast Casual special report, "Digital Signage in Foodservice: Menu Boards, Greeter Boards and Marquees." Click here to download this report.
Before digital signage, foodservice displays consisted mainly of magnetic and backlit menu boards with slide-in prices. Changing from one daypart to another often meant rotating the menu board from one sign to another, and items out of stock or no longer carried often were struck from the board by strategically placed masking tape.
Evolving computer and display technology in the 1990s offered the possibility of using digital-signage technology to replace the backlit menu board. Since then, digital signage has evolved from static or scrolling messages displayed on an LED screen to LCD display panels that offer schedulable, fully editable menus with full-motion video. The panels also can be remotely controlled for instant updating in one or more locations using the Internet.
Harvey Friedman, founder and president of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Epicure Digital Systems, created the digital restaurant menu-board system in 1992 for World Links, a gourmet sausage restaurant he co-founded. In 1996, World Links had 11 restaurants around the United States all using digital menu boards.
"Because we were a new concept, we didn't know whether the concept or the recipes were going to work," Friedman said. "We wanted the flexibility to change menu items, prices and promotions quickly and easily."
In recent years, a host of other companies — such as Brookfield, Wis.-based Mainstreet Menu Systems, Chicago-based Adflow Networks Inc. and Troy, Mich.-based Nextep Systems — have joined the fray. Today, the digital menu-board market is a billion-dollar industry, and it has only just gotten off the ground.
"Just as adding machines have been replaced by computers, when the cost of displays becomes low enough, digital menu boards will replace static menu boards," Friedman said. "Our fastest-growing market is colleges and universities where a typical residential dining facility has multiple fast-casual concepts with menus that change every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. With a digital menu system, it's easy. Without, it's a nightmare to manage."
Clint Eatherton, owner of 7th Heaven Eatery in Phoenix, first installed a digital menu-board system in his restaurant in November 2006.
"We have four 46-inch monitors mounted behind our counter that act as our menu board, Eatherton said. "We have about 65 different menu items that are listed, as well as the soups of the day."
Eatherton's digital menu board uses NEC LCD screens that display menus and content designed by Epicure Digital. The boards feature a menu backed with moving scenery, which changes depending on the time of day.
"We are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Eatherton said. "At breakfast time, the board displays a nice, bright sunrise with hang gliders and hot air balloons moving in behind the text."
During lunch, the board changes to reflect a midday look, and in the evening the board displays an orange dusk scene. After dark, twinkling stars with flying saucers and other objects move across it.
Because the template for Eatherton's menu board is Web-based, he can make changes to 7th Heaven's menu items from anywhere in the world.
"If we've had an item on the menu for four weeks and we've only sold 10, we would probably want to get rid of it," Eatherton said. "If you had the standard graphics board, which could cost $1,800 to have printed, you have to figure in that cost each time you change the menu. With the digital boards, you change it today and it doesn't cost you a penny."
Content is king
Along with simply displaying a menu, digital signage in a restaurant can serve a number of other functions, said Jeff Blankensop, director of business development for Chicago-based NEC Display Solutions of America.
"No. 1, it can offer some entertainment value," Blankensop said. "No. 2, it could help the restaurant owner educate or inform their client about new products that are being sold, special promotions and similar things."
For example, Blankensop says if a QSR operator is running a promotional tie-in with a movie, screens in the dining room can play movie trailers. Dining-room signage also creates an opportunity for operators to strike promotional deals with vendors, he said.
"Let's say it's a chain that serves Coca Cola, and maybe they have the leverage with Coca Cola to say to them, 'We have this new system and we want to sell advertising space to you as one of our strategic partners,'" Blankensop said. "You can create wonderful full-motion video of Coca Cola pouring into a glass or something like that and play it in the dining room."
Jeff Levine, founder of the Margate, Fla.-based fast-casual restaurant Salad Creations, is testing a digital menu board at one of the chain's locations in southern Florida.
"It's sort of a cross between a digital menu board and a traditional menu board," Levine said. "Through the Internet, we can change our message on a daily basis. It's a neat tool for us as far as running quarterly promotions and so forth."
Content includes promoting various salads the chain sells, as well as new store openings. The company also uses the board to educate new customers about Salad Creations and the restaurant's ordering process.
"We have a whole program running on the menu board that walks you through the steps on how to create your own salad," Levine said. "We have 40 different salad toppings and it's a little intimidating for a first-time customer coming through our door."