Digital Menu Boards: The solution for meeting upcoming FDA requirements

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Menu Labeling Requirement Act will go in effect on May 5th, 2017. This is bound to put some huge pressures on food establishments as this legislation requires any food service operation with 20 or more locations to have calorie counts and other nutritional information included in their menus.

Operators of quick serve restaurants, delis, c-stores, and fast casual restaurants will all need to find ways to get calorie counts on menus and keep them updated and accurate. The easy and obvious answer is to go digital!

“Digital signage is not the only way to meet the regulation set forth by FDA but it is the most efficient and effective. Be careful don’t trade one issue for another. Make sure when it’s done it’s backed by a strong Content Management System (CMS).” explains Ifti Ifhar, CEO of ComQi “The demand for digital signage is on the rise and, since its takes time to rollout, food service operators should be starting now to select a solution and get it properly deployed.”

Digital Signage not only help comply with FDA regulations, but also offer huge operational efficiencies.

Here’s just a few advantages of digital menu boards:

  • No Printing Cost – Digital removes the costs of printing menus – not only in paper but also in delivery. With digital, there are no recurring print or labor costs. Any changes to the menu board – such as calorie, fat, sodium and other nutritional information, seasonal menu items or price changes – can be easily made by a keyboard, PC and the cloud. No paper or inks also makes for a far more eco-friendly solution;
  • Impulse Sales – One in five people make an unplanned purchase after seeing items featured on digital screens. This can result in 2.5% to 3% increases on margin per transaction. In the food business, that’s huge;
  • Boosted Total Sales – 29.5% of food service customers find digital menus influence purchased decisions, which can directly result in 3% to 5% increases in sales. Again, huge!;
  • Day-part Scheduling – Items only sold during certain hours – like breakfast or late-night snacks – appear and disappear on schedules. Digital allows different menus based on time of day/day of week, as well as seasonality. Sophisticated systems are also aware, basing content and scheduling on back-office information like out-of-stocks and low performers;
  • Promo Messages – Digital allows operators to promote individual offerings or limited-time-only specials on menu items. Promo content can be designed to be very specific (for example, a pizza promo) which will run on a regular basis, or be more generalized, and used to re-enforce the brand;
  • Getting Social – Promote your restaurant’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feeds and more importantly (and interestingly), share activity from customers who are reaching out. Many businesses try to connect to their customers across social networks. It certainly goes beyond the standard restaurant experience, and adds another dimension of interactivity.

In theory, just about any content management system can execute the basics of getting a menu up on a digital display. But the range of solutions narrows quickly when the real requirements are analyzed.

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“There’s a big difference between doing something, and doing it well,” explains Stuart Armstrong, Group President for the digital signage software firm ComQi. “A system that’s going to meet the needs of even a small restaurant group needs to be networked, built for scale, have an appropriate approval workflow and operating efficiencies.”

“A strong solution has the ability to handle needs that can change by location, store type, geography, local preferences, local taxes … the list goes on and on,” adds Ifti Ifhar, which provides solutions to numerous food service companies globally. “And very few solutions are built with the Internet of Things in mind – the ability to not only offer a great solution, but to integrate and interact with other solutions – like Point of Sale systems, order confirmation,  or even drive-thru sensors.”

Every client needs something just a little bit different, but here are the core “must-haves” for any digital signage CMS servicing the food business:

  • Cloud-based Platform –Also called Software as a Service (or SaaS) – means the software footprint and overall cost to an organization is minimized, because there is no application software to install and support on laptops or desktops, and no server software or hardware needed. Operators use a browser and log in online to manage their network the same, secure way they might log in to manage their finances using online banking. Cloud-based systems are also – when designed right – scalable and ready for spikes in activity and demand – so servers don’t crash when things get busy;
  • Store/Franchise Portal – Users, local to a site, can have access to manage messages and data such as menus, venue schedules or local weather updates. The portal should be customized on a per-user basis and administrators at HQ have control over which content can be managed by other users. In short, a good CMS gives local users a powerful sense of ownership and adds value to the digital signage network, while tools such as an approvals system allow central managers to feel comfortable they can still see and approve local messaging, rather than operating in an information vacuum;
  • Total Solution Provider – Food services companies know what they’re good at – feeding people. As in most industries, they’re happy to offload much of the network operation – from design through launch and ongoing operations – to a good end-to-end service provider. The right partner understands the demands, and knows how to optimize visual presentations. A total solutions provider also means clients have just one invoice, and one point of contact – usually a blessing in the complicated, busy work lives of clients;
  • Redundancy – Order menu displays are mission-critical to almost any food services operation, and need fail-safes in the event a screen goes down because of hardware failure. An Automatic Screen Failover system realizes if, for example, one out of three screens is down, the software immediately re-distributes the content to the remaining two screens, until the third display is restored. The system would also alert the network operator that a display is black, and that immediately triggers a chain of events to resolve the issue. The absence of such a system means some of the menu options don’t show (meaning lost revenues). Experience has steadily shown local managers and staff may not ever contact the network operator to report an outage, so screens can stay black for days or even weeks;
  • APIs – An optimal solution will have what’s called an Application Programming Interface that allows for different systems to integrate and start talking to one another, and sharing data. That really matters in food services, because smart systems using APIs can do dynamic scheduling and pricing based on what sales and inventory management systems are reporting. Using “rules” built around available data, it’s possible to do things like increase promotions for food items a system says is underperforming in terms of orders, or remove a menu item dynamically when it goes out of stock.

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Messaging Doesn’t Stop At The Order Counter

Food services is a job for most, but not a career. A typical fast-food restaurant will turn over the equivalent of its full staffing complement annually, and that creates an ongoing need to get critical messages in front of staff members who cycle in and out all day, every day.

“This is an area that’s often overlooked when food services companies start down the path of making their visual communications digital in their stores,” says Armstrong. “Putting screens in the so-called Back of House can address some very real pain points in a business where there always seem to be new people, and there’s little to no time for sit-down meetings or formal training.”

Digital screens serve four important jobs that are usually out of the diners’ view:

  1. Equipment And Safety Training – Kitchens are full of ovens, dryers, sharp utensils and slippery surfaces. Digital screens can powerfully reinforce workplace safety and food safety tips, and reduce liability and lost workday risks;
  2. Product Knowledge – Operators in the hyper-competitive QSR business thrive or suffer based on the quality of customer service and customer engagement. Messaging that keeps staff informed on new offers and how to engage and speak effectively with customers is critical;
  3. Company Communications – Typical QSR staff aren’t issued desktop PCs or mobile devices, or given email addresses, so the most effective way to ensure important HR messages reach employees are screens that staff invariably see throughout shifts. That can be everything from payment information to motivational messaging;
  4. Performance Metrics – Screens tied to management systems can display in real-time how the team is performing on key metrics, like service, drive-through order and delivery time. Old-school LED readouts can be supplanted with displays that use dynamic charting and visual cues to effectively show how teams are performing.

Done well, effective back of house communications raises the likelihood that turnover rates will slow down. There’s plenty of research available showing employees are happier when they know what’s going on, and their work is appreciated and celebrated.

Going Interactive

Digital signage also provides smart, interactive tools that engage customers in meaningful ways.

Interactive screens have been successful in QSR environments as a mechanism to skip lines, by placing orders and paying for them, without talking directly to the staff. When the order is ready, the patrons go to a pickup counter.

The attraction for consumers is it’s fast, accurate and includes custom ordering (“No pickles!”). The attraction for operators is it allows for faster transactions and less cash handling, since customers are paying via credit/debit cards. These screens also reduce the risk for order errors and waste.

“When we work with customers, we’re always looking to apply tools that are going to make the visitor experience better in some way,” says Ifhar. “The user experience has to be easy and intuitive, and the real work is behind the screen – integrating with the point of sales system efficiently and accurately.”

Ordering screens lead double lives when designed properly. When not in use, these screens aren’t sitting idle. They run “attract” content that invites guest to use the screens, and also feature promotions and special offers.

Summing It Up

Many food services operators have already started the transition to digital from print, and the long expected FDA requirements are expected to accelerate adoption. The good news here is that these regulatory requirements are stimulating changes that make things better for both the food service operators, and their customers.

Going digital just makes sense.