NRA 2011: McCafé digital menu board project largest in world

McDonald's jumped into the digital menu board space last year, tapping Stratacache to roll out the technology for its popular McCafe line in more than 12,600 units nationwide.

Chris Riegel, CEO of Dayton, Ohio-based Stratacache, and Dan Williams, senior director of retail marketing at McDonald's, discussed the project at Monday's National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. Their session was titled "McCafe Digital Menu Boards: An Ideal Blend of Ingredients for Maximizing ROI."

The McCafé digital menu board project is the largest in the world in terms of number of devices, number of locations and overall project schedule. Also, McCafé represents the largest and most advanced QSR media system project in history.

The McDonald's DMB project is a complete ecosystem, from media player to support, and presents the entire menu, pricing and caloric information where applicable. In making the decision to switch to digital menus, Williams said the opportunity was clear and the benefits are numerous.

For example, there is a green approach, as the menu boards are "ultra low" power devices, which decreases costs and is more environmentally friendly. It also brings products to life more than a two-dimensional menu, according to Williams.

"These enhance the attributes of products and the technology affords operators more management ability over their content," he said.

A potential return-on-investment, which the two wouldn't specify, comes with a reduction in costly print products. Some also believe there is an up-sell opportunity that stems from digital's compelling visuals, which add to the overall customer experience.

One of the biggest advantages with the McCafé digital menu board project comes with the impending food labeling laws expected to be in place by 2012. This system allows operators to add required nutritional information easily and is customizable to specific units for menu variation. Everything is password protected for individual operators to control the system through a web interface, something Williams said was a good fit for the McDonald's system.

However, he cautioned that internal communication is critical in applying digital menu boards' benefits.

"You can have something that is visual and sexy for those looking at it, but it doesn't mean anything if those at the site don't know how to manage it," Williams said. "It can be overwhelming, so it's important that each of the managers control their own content the right way."

Content is key

Content is king in a digital menu board project, and McDonald's McCafé's platform includes, or has the ability to include new products, dayparts, pricing updates, regional-specific content, local messaging, menu variation, enhanced automation and food labeling compliance.

The menu boards can also showcase dynamic video, product highlights and dynamic pricing.

"Once this system is deployed, the content is ongoing," Riegel said. "Content is never a destination, it's a journey; it moves and changes as your business evolves."

In addition to providing a better opportunity to communicate, Williams said highlights of the project include a visible enhancement of products, the ability to bring things to life and the fulfillment of increased customer expectation to have more information presented in a visually compelling way.

Project's beginnings

Stratacache's competitive RFP for the project had a two-week turnaround. The contract was signed with McDonald's in mid-February, 2010 and had a 98.6 percent completion rate by Dec. 31, 2010. The remaining 1.4 percent was finished by Jan. 11, 2011. The project continues now as new stores are added.

The rollout began with two test phases: Phase one began immediately at 12 pilot sites, and phase two added 84 test units in March and April, 2010.

The system currently is at counters only, not at the drive-thru.

Riegel said Stratacache's "War Room" – its network operations – during the rollout yielded the implementation at 200 to 300 sites a day.

"It was like playing Missile Command and Whack-a-Mole at the same time," he said. "The most important part was to be as minimally impactful to the business as you can."

Other partners in the project include NEC, IMS, ARL and AT&T WiFi. Williams said McDonald's is "looking at" additional technology opportunities at its restaurants, including digital solutions for the main menu, but will not move forward anytime soon.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Scott Sharon
    This article makes me feel good and bad at the same time. I feel bad because I worked with McDonald's menu board supplier for several months helping them develop a menu board for the McCafe project, developing several prototypes. I told them at that time the only way to do what McDonald's wanted to do would be with a digital menu board but McDonald's management was totally against digital menu boards.

    I feel good because this project is good for the digital menu board business as a whole and it proves I was right.
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