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September 2008

Super Sellers
By: Karen M. Alley

As more cash-strapped consumers look for value meals, now's the time to make sure your outdoor menu boards are working hard. Think bigger pictures, more flexibility, separate daypart menus and digital technology.

Imagine you're in the car getting ready to order lunch at a drive-through window. You're also talking to a client on the cell and trying to juggle an ATM deposit slip. You get to the menu board and instead of a few lunch items you're faced with full breakfast, lunch and dinner menus as well as desserts, value deals and special promotions.

Within seconds the voice from the speaker calls out, "Can I help you?" and you're at a loss for words.

"The drive-through can be a high stress area, and adding more copy and clutter on the menu board only adds to that stress,"
says Bob Sowa of LSI Industries, a Cincinnati-based menu board maker.

So while it's smart to add more menu items and extend dayparts—especially these days, when consumers are trading back to less expensive quick meals—adding time to the order process is the thing to avoid. And that's where some innovative new ideas and equipment from outdoor menu board suppliers come in.

Worth A Thousand Words
The concept of "bigger is better" applies not only to super-size value meals but also to the pictures used on outdoor menu boards.

"We're doing many more menu boards that are full of pictures, with text less prominent, and operators have seen an increase in sales from that," says Dawn Pankow, Mainstreet Menu Systems, a brand of The Howard Co. in Brookfield, Wis. "Pictures speed the order process and help sell high-margin items and combos, the real moneymakers."

The trend toward using pictures to "sell" the story is a common one, and menu board makers have added special features to accommodate this need. Flexible tracking systems are a popular way to make it easy to slide in full-size photos. National Sign Systems' patented Magnatrac, for example, allows for unlimited configurations with cabinets designed so that you can replace copy with a picture or move photos from one panel to another.

"Traditionally, the components of menu boards have been locked into tracks, but with Magnatrac you're not locked into any format," says Paul Falkenbach, National Sign Systems, Hilliard, Ohio. Magnatrac uses a proprietary magnetic track and allows you to move the guides wherever you need them to fit your graphics and words.

Menu Mark Systems and LSI Industries also have flexible tracking systems. "We offer the Flex-Track system that allows the customer to call the shots on sizes and arrangements of text and graphics," says Tamra Ellingson of Menu Mark Systems, Almena, Wis. "The system's comprised of adjustable metal tracks that go into the doors. You set them where you need them and slide the menu strips or graphics into the channels."

LSI's adjustable panel system slides into its menu boards. "Customers can adjust the configuration so that it can accommodate a full-size graphic, or two or three smaller ones," says LSI's Sowa.

The beauty of adjustable tracking is that you can add new items or rearrange products within your menu without having to invest in an entirely new menu board. By using either a local printer or an internal marketing group, new graphics can easily be designed to match the original theme of the menu board. "You can change your mind or update your menu and not have to spend a lot of money," says Sowa.

Arranging pictures and knowing which items to show prominently are challenging tasks, and most menu board manufacturers offer free design help after a product purchase. At Mainstreet Menu Systems, each customer is teamed with a personal designer. "From an operator's standpoint, the design of the menu board is so important because 60% or more of their customers are using the drive-through only," ays Pankow. "All we need from the operator is a list of the menu items and the amount of space they have to work with."

A professional designer can help balance out graphics and text as well as create something that's aesthetically pleasing and easily readable. "You want to make something that catches people' eyes but that's easy to go through," adds Ellingson. "I like to use straight-forward category headers in a color that stands out to draw people's attention." Ellingson also can match any color, whether it's a color on a logo or the color of the operation's interior countertops, to help keep the brand alive outside the restaurant.

Dayparting Made Easy
Another way to cut down on clutter is to separate menu expansions. With so many restaurants adding to menus, especially breakfast items, the need for more space on menu boards is increasing. But rather than make a huge, hard-to-read menu board, suppliers have found effective ways to separate menus into dayparts.

"There are basically two schools of thought on dayparting," says Sowa. "Most customers want to show breakfast menus in the morning, then flip to show lunch and dinner in the afternoon and evening. But some operators want to promote their new menu items all the time to get the word out."

Rotating menu boards is one way to meet this need. "Our Revolution Series is an outdoor menu board where all panels rotate for different daypart segments," says National Sign's Falkenbach. "When you buy one of these it's like two menus built into one." With Mainstreet Menu Systems, customers can choose a daypart add-on that rotates. "You can have breakfast on one side and flip it over for lunch and dinner," says Pankow. "It's one way to give operators more real estate."

LSI also offers a rotating menu board that sits on a bearing and manually spins around, so it's easy for employees to change over each day. "We've also done a lot of work in the topper area as far as promoting additional menus," says Sowa.

More Than Just A Pretty Face
While big changes have been going on in the design and presentation of material on menu boards, the boards themselves also have been improved. Menu boards are probably the only pieces of equipment operators will ever buy, other than basic signage, that have to withstand freezing temperatures, extreme heat, high winds and vandalism.

Mainstreet Menu Systems uses acrylic doors to protect graphics. "We run wind and rain tests to make sure they're protected from the elements," says Pankow. The company also can meet wind mode requirements for any area of the country.

Another advance at Mainstreet is in the graphics themselves. "We have a new printing technology for better UV protection so images don't fade. It's guaranteed for two years," she adds.

At LSI, a powder-coated aluminum finish helps keep boards looking good for years, and a hard-coat polycarbonate for doors makes them more resistant to breakage and damage.

The green movement has made an impact in outdoor menu boards, as well. Mainstreet, National Sign and LSI all have moved to energy-efficient lighting, an innovation that saves money in energy costs and also helps the environment. "All of our products use T8 fluorescent lights, which consume less energy without losing the lighting effectiveness or the color factor," says Pankow.

Menu Bored? Not For Long
The next big thing for outdoor menu boards is the digital revolution, and it's already starting in some select outdoor uses. We're talking moving pictures here, and menus and upsells that change as quickly as you need them to.

For example, Mainstreet offers a digital screen as an add-on with its Drive Thru Choice menu boards, and LSI is working on digital products with some operators. "Most of our customers aren't looking to go digital exclusively," explains Sowa. "Where it makes sense is in limited-time promotional items."

Digital technology is still pretty expensive, and though LCD screens are getting better, sunlight and extreme temperatures can present problems. "Some of our operators are already using these LCD screens, and it's great because you can pretty much show whatever you want," Sowa says.

One caveat as digitalization becomes more sophisticated: Avoid getting too playful or busy with moving digital images. You don't want your drive-through customers slowing down to watch the "show."

On the upside, a simple digital addition to menu boards adds all sorts of flexibility. The programming can be taken care of onsite or at a central server, and be used for dayparting, highlighting special promotions, or upselling without depending on busy employees to do it verbally.

Lots of companies consider digital a priority in product development now, so it's likely that options will expand and prices will reflect the competition. It won't be long before drive-through customers will see that seasonal milkshake you want to push being poured right into the cup.

Whether you're trying to change out your entire image or just update an older menu board, the options today are endless. Thanks to new technology and greater flexibility, manufacturers are now able to work with operators to create an entire marketing package that complements your operation and helps impact your bottom line.

Building A Better Menu Board
Put some thought into your menu boards and their ease of use will pay dividends.

  1. Use pictures to tell the story. Details are nice, but pictures of your menu items make ordering quicker and easier.
  2. Banish the clutter. Avoid too many stickers and add-on signs. Let the board do the talking.
  3. Jazz up design. Clear headers with a color that stands out—think red—will make things easier for the customer to read.
  4. Clean glass. If you remove stickers, make sure the residue is washed off. The menu board is often the only impression your customers are exposed to, so it's important to keep it clean and fresh.
  5. Keep brand images consistent. Menu boards are an extension of your brands, so add-ons and signs should feature the same design intent of the original board.

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