Friday, August 2, 2013

Announcing a Menu Revolution

It's not every day that I get to announce a major change in the way our restaurant does business. This is exciting! For thousands of years, restaurants have used either a printed menu or menu board to display, sell and market their products. Next week, we are going to change this age-old practice... we are going digital.

At trade shows the past several years, we've seen this coming - menus on handheld tablet computers. We have been considering how it could help us solve some of our many menu problems. This past year we dug into the idea a little deeper and started visiting with several of the major players that provide this service. Slowly I became convinced, though it does not seem that there are any clear cut leaders in this technology.

Of the four companies we considered, they all seem to have slightly under 50 accounts. This means a conservative guess would be that less than 250 restaurants in the country are doing this? Also, it seems that most of them are using it only to display their wine list, not to hold their entire menu on it.

In looking at our menu problems and goals, we started to discover that this format would solve many  of them. For the past five years, we have been looking for a more efficient way of  marketing the 500 products that we sell every day. We like to keep things fresh. Every day we layout and reprint several pages - adding specials, removing specials and trying to keep the entire menu accurate with all the fluctuations that happen in day to day business. Needless to say, it's quite an investment in time, toner, and paper. Everything else we've looked at over the past five years has had either major cost, labor or marketing drawbacks.
So this past May at the National Restaurant Show we whittled it down to one company that we really liked and decided to do a cost analysis. We found that with the amount of time and effort that we put into the menu every day and the lack of flexibility that we have, the cost of doing our menu digitally on tablets was financially feasible.

With the cost question out of the way, we started to consider how the transition would affect us:

  • Marketing: It allows us some marketing opportunities that you simply cannot get with paper or a menu board. There is not enough room on a paper menu to say everything we want to say about a dish.
  • The Cost: Believe it or not, we are estimating this will be less expensive overall than our menu process now.
  • Flexibility: The single most important feature of this product to me as an operator is being able to change something "on the fly". If someone walks in the front door with morel mushrooms or heirloom tomatoes, they can be on the menu almost immediately. If something runs out or we are not happy with the quality, we can "86" it. It is as easy as typing "8-6". Within 10 minutes, every single menu in our place is updated. It is like I died and went to heaven.
  • Customer Experimentation: When talking to you, our customers, many of you are in a rut! By being able to see and read more about a dish, maybe you will finally try something new! Now if you have 2 or 3 favorite things on the planet that you can only get at Uptown, we have you hooked.
  • Menu Size: We are no longer constrained by paper. As long as things are easy to find and get to, the possibilities are endless.
  • Promoting: It also allows us to promote other things in house with what we are going to call "flip through pages" These might involve information on our upcoming shows, our banquet room, selling gift cards or items for sale out the door like our homemade breads, dressings and cookies.

    And of course the part you're more interested in, how it benefits the customer:
    • Menu Item Information: The customer can simply touch the item and up comes a picture and a better description of that item.
    • Menu Layout: You can still flip through every page if you like or simply touch the menu button and get right to your section.
    • Wine Pairings: When touching most food item links, a wine will be selected that best accompanies that dish, thanks to the tablet's "Pairing Pro" software.
    • Nutritional Information: It will not be used right of the bat (we have to be able to walk before we run). It connects with the USDA database and provides nutritional data such as fat, carbs, and calories for that dish.
    • The Planet: It is 99.4% greener than printing on paper.
    This particular product does involve using android-based tablets which are considerably cheaper than iPads. Believe it or not, you cannot get a volume discount when purchasing Apple products. With us estimating needing 40 to 50 menus, this was a big concern. After the initial programing and hardware cost, the company charges a fee for each tablet that is connected.

    The number one question my polled customers and staff asked is, "How do you keep people from stealing them?" Almost all companies, including the one that we selected, have a anti-theft application. This app completely disables the unit the moment it walks out the door. It also has tracking features that allow us to find wherever in the world our tablet has gone. 
    It seems the number two question was "Are people going to be able to handle using a tablet for reading their menu?" Being an innovator and an eternal optimist, I am saying yes. I have faith in you. It is as simple as flipping through pages on a book to get from one page to another. 

    There is also a menu button that scrolls up and down to take you directly to where you want to go, whether that would be desserts, the wine list, or appetizers. Our staff will be trained to walk you through it the moment you are seated. As I said, not too many restaurants in the entire country are using this fully for their menus.
    It will be interesting. Please let us know your thoughts and blog with us.


    1. Great idea, Ray. Uptown Grill is always ahead of the times.
      Should be fun.

    2. Wow! Being a big foodie and techie, I for one can not wait to see these new menus in action. Well done, sir!.

    3. Always willing to try new things-this is why Uptown is my favorite restaurant :)

    4. This is an exciting and forward-thinking development! I believe the menu on a tablet will make my experience at Uptown even better than than it has been every time I have dined there!