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Signs of the Times

Signs of the Times

High-tech menu boards provide operators with a host of benefits, from paring down printing expenses to capturing ews customers.

Signage — the kind that projects a concept's brand, tells you what's on the menu, when the café is open and how much the pizza costs — is functional, essential and, many would have said, “mature” in terms of its use as a marketing tool. But just as digital technology has transformed most other forms of communication, it is also rapidly giving signage new power, impact and potential.

In onsite environments today, where menus and pricing change all the time, the use of printed menu flyers, plastic lettering pushed into grooved boards or even much professionally-designed brand identity signage is increasingly being re-considered. Returning in their place is a new generation of digital signage that comes with multi-media, animation and programmable capabilities that promise real benefits for operators and for customers and host institutions as well.

Among other benefits, digital signage allows operators to respond quickly to changes in menu selections and pricing. It reduces printing, paper and maintenance costs, as well as the waste created by daily disposal of out-of-date materials.

“You see the results of your efforts immediately,” says Mary Pat Wais, Food Service Director at Central Dupage Hospital in Winfield, IL. “You can correct mistakes on the fly and there are no more unpleasant surprises when you receive items back from the printer.”

It also makes it practical — even easy — to highlight new specials and promotional offers at a moment's notice, providing additional marketing opportunities.

Consider Aramark's Digital Signage Network, a network model contract giant Aramark was able to create to serve clients in multiple segments and help them communicate menu variety as well as provide a richer consumer dining experience.

“It gives us a new communications channel,” says George Yunis, Senior Director of Creative Services for the company. “In addition to supporting a variety of menu strategies, it forms the backbone for multiple uses and applications.”

One of the most pragmatic advantages the system offers is a flexible means to display nutritional information, he says, especially given the current climate in which governmental mandates of such information are coming down the pike. This is reason alone for many operators to consider digital signage in lieu of traditional techniques for communicating nutritionals at points of service.

Further, “The ability to communicate promotional and other information directly to customers on a real time basis is priceless,” Yunis adds.

The benefits don't stop there. Unlike printed signs, digital signage is not static. It's relatively easy to add motion and even audio to menu boards, depending on the software that's employed to manage them. Such interactivity provides a level of engagement that can't be matched, Yunis says.

“We are able to bring live cooking displays to life with streaming video from on site cameras that add to the customer's perception and enjoyment of our cafés, food courts, and other environments,” says Yunis.

Try that with print.

“Combo” messaging

BlueCross BlueShield of Florida in Jacksonville provides foodservice to a population of approximately 8,000 employees and contractors from five café locations, a conference center, full and quick service catering, as well as various c-store and vending locations throughout the State of Florida.

“We currently use the menu boards in the two full service cafés located on our main campus in Jacksonville, as well as in our conference center,” says Damian Monticello, FMP, Corporate Foodservice Liaison for BlueCross BlueShield. “For café operations, the primary purpose is to show the items that are available at our different stations. In the conference center, it's an important tool in managing traffic movement and helping visitors navigate the physical space.”

BlueCross BlueShield of Florida Case Western University’s Fribley Dining Hall

(l.) A menu board at BlueCross BlueShield of Florida uses marketing materials from foodservice provider Sodexo. (r.) The boards in Case Western University’s Fribley Dining Hall displays not only the cafe menu but sustainability messages and promotions from mangement company Bon Appetit.

The material for the café menu boards comes primarily from marketing materials Monticello receives from Sodexo, the foodservice provider for BlueCross BlueShield's Jacksonville location.

“We import the graphics and menus into our design software,” he says. “From there, we control its distribution to individual points of display.”

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BlueCross BlueShield's core menus cycle once a day when they switch from breakfast to lunch. However, limited time offers (LTOs) and other promotional messages can cycle in and out as frequently as Monticello would like, since they only take up a portion of the screen space.

“When we were in the planning stage for our 2nd café and conference center, we knew we needed to be able to easily and effectively display a large volume of information on a daily basis,” explains Monticello.

“There were seven different points of service planned for the new café, some of them providing items at both breakfast and lunch, as well as five in our existing café. Depending on how the space was being used, there could be as many as14 separate meetings going on at the same time. That — and information related to constantly changing meetings and events — seemed like too much to handle with printed signage and posters.”

BlueCross BlueShield's system requires very little maintenance other than periremoval of menus that are no longer needed in order to maximize memory space and display speed.

Unlocking Potential

“Menus are the first place you communicate with your customers. And, as the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression,” says Monticello. “Whether it's the way you describe an item, publish the nutritional information, or romance a promotional offering, the main point is to make it appealing to the customer.”

Jim O'Brien, Resident District Manager for Bon Appétit at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, couldn't agree more. “We like to implement new recipes and concepts in our cafes on a continual basis. We thought a new form of communicating to our audience might prove to be effective.”

He was right. Case recently installed a high-tech menu board system for one-time cost of approximately $12,000 that included the screens, training, and installation in Fribley Dining Hall, which caters more toward upper class students that are currently on meal plans.

“The menu board broadcasts our daily café menu, as well as many of our sustainable initiative messages and promotions. It's visually stimulating for students and we've seen sales increase since we installed it in January.”

Case uses a PowerPoint slide show created in house and formatted to fit the screen dimensions once completed. The slideshow is then uploaded into the database and implemented onto Fribley's menu board.

“Creating, formatting and uploading changes to a promotional slide show can be time consuming,” says O'Brien. “But it's the most effective way to communicate to our audience.”

Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Systems in Mattoon, IL, uses its menu board to promote more healthful dining choices by hospital employees.

“It's an easy way to post our menus in the café and on the hospital's Intranet so that anyone in any department can see what's for lunch,” says Cathy Babbs, MS, RD, LDN, DHCFA, Director, Food and Nutrition Services.

At point of sale, “we use it to market our more healthful menu options,” she adds, “In our Basement Bistro, we put an apple symbol next to items that align with our Fresh Start criteria [the name of SBLHS's wellness program]. The hospital offers a 25% discount on items ordered that fit within that criteria, so customers really appreciate knowing which items qualify.”

The pros and cons of complexity

The benefits of electronic signage are well-documented. It is immediate and flexible. Updates are easy and messages can be quickly changed to respond to varying demographics, menus, or events. More sophisticated software packages to manage messaging offer more potential bells, whistles and flexibility, but also bring higher costs and programming challenges.

While we refer to such systems as digital signage, “They're still computers,” says Scott Harmon, General Manager of Retail Operations, at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where high-tech menu boards have been in place since 2006. “When you're working with a computer, there can be glitches. We're fortunate enough to have 24/7 support from our system provider so if something goes wrong, all we have to do is make a phone call, someone can remote in, repair the problem and get us back up and running.”

UConn's system gives Harmon all the tools he needs to control the menu boards on a day-to-day basis from a central server through a web-based, intuitive interface. “It's as simple as using a word processor,” says Harmon.

Cost is another oft-cited challenge.

“The hardware is cheaper now than when we first installed ours. Plus, there is a greater range of options in terms of type and size screen that can help you control costs,” says Harmon.

Current display-screen choices include LCD and plasma. There is a need for both in the marketplace and operators need to choose the right technology for the right environment.

“Some screens are just not built to handle the temperatures and conditions within a café,” notes Harmon. But just as in the home entertainment market, “The hardware has improved in recent years,” he adds, and, as the market for digital signage expands, “the applications and opportunities will likely expand as well.”

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Fleshing out menu descriptions

As an almost-afterthought, Rob Pasichnyk, Director of Nutritional Services at Providence Health Center in Waco, Texas, integrated dynamic menu signage into his operation while the hospital was undergoing a total rebuild in January of 2008.

“We realized we didn't have anything planned for menu boards three months before the grand opening of our new café. “The architects thought the consultants would handle it and vice versa,” says Pasichnyk, who had already spent $2 million on the renovation.

“I reached out to some friends in the industry to get more information on our best digital signage options. After having spent so much money already, I was reluctant to ask for another $50,000 for a menu board system. But in the long run, it will save us a pretty substantial amount of money and it better aligns with our concept.”

The digital menu boards proved especially helpful when Providence's new operation first opened its doors for business.

“We had a million things going on at once,” says Pasichnyk. “The menu boards not only looked great, but I didn't have to worry about them. They were — and are — seamless and self sustaining.”

As Providence has grown into its digital signage system, Pasichnyk has begun fleshing out menu descriptions and doing such things as sometimes displaying the name of the cook who came up with a dish as a way of giving staff recognition.

“If you put in the initial time and investment, it's a technology that pays off in many ways,” he adds.

Location, Location, Location

Ensuring that these new capabilities support the larger goals of an operation and its branding strategies requires not only technology, but well thought out plans as well.

DigiKnow, the digital signage network by the University of California, Santa Barbara Housing & Residential Services, employs screens located at all four of the school's dining commons, as well as at the front desks of all eight residence halls.

“We put the screens in the most public spaces, where people tend to gather, thus maximizing exposure,” says Jill Horst, Director of Residential Dining Services at UCSB. “It has become a very import marketing tool for our foodservice operation. Because of it, we are able to “talk” to our customers at the moment they may be making key dining and other decisions.”

DigiKnow broadcasts information about events or new initiatives in both Dining and Housing Services. For Dining, that means an opportunity to communicate the department's use of cage-free eggs, fair trade coffee, Nutrition Week initiatives and so on. “We've also started broadcasting photos of students in a smaller secondary region of the screen as added incentive for them to keep an eye on the signage,” says Horst.

Horst and Julie Levangie, Coordinator of Communication & Marketing at UCSB, typically design their messaging in PowerPoint, but say they recently discovered a software utility that converts slideshow presentations with animation into flash video.

“We're just starting to implement it,” says Horst.

Behind the Curtain

Beyond all the aforementioned benefits, digital menu boards can also help solve minor operational problems.

“Before, if we ran out of something, we had to cross it off the menuor tell customers as they ordered that we were out of that item,” says Central Dupage Hospital's Wais. “What that really says to customers is that we haven't planned or ordered correctly.”

Now, if the hospital runs out of an item, it is dropped from or replaced on the menu right away.

“This kind of flexibility keeps the menu looking very clean and intentional, no matter what happens, she says.”

“The way our lines are set up, some students used to try to slip past without paying,” says Buzz Hofford, GM for for Bon Appétit at Seattle University. “We built a really nice piece of furniture to house a greeter board that relays our message of sustainability to students as they enter the café, but it also narrows the entry space.”

Seattle's system is a slideshow presentation that runs on a 20-minute loop and, according to Hofford, students almost never see the same part twice. This keeps the content fresh and interesting.

“It offers some entertainment value,” while they are waiting in line, Hofford says. And in a culture where constant entertainment has become the norm for many, operators can expect that this option will almost certainly become the new frontier that digital signage helps them explore.

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