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5 things you need to know about menu boards

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Ben Popken)

Menu boards are critical to many restaurant and foodservice operations: customers can’t order what they can’t see. And yet, we rarely consider their impact on the bottom line. Does the type of menu board matter — a digital board vs. a chalkboard? Do consumers really want photos? Have calorie counts had an impact?

To understand menu boards, Datassential surveyed over 1,500 consumers and 350 operators for our brand new Menu Board Keynote Report. What are the issues both consumers and operators have with menu boards? Which innovations do consumers find most useful? What can operators do to create a menu board that will bump up the check average?

Some of the results surprised us. One-third of consumers said they ordered the cheapest item on the board because it was the easiest to find. The same percentage said menu boards are generally placed too high up, making them difficult to read. And only 32% of operators say that every item available is represented on the menu board.

Clearly menu boards are having an impact.

Here’s a sneak peak at five insights you need to know from this brand new, just-released report:

  1. The type of operation impacts if a consumer will look at a menu board. Consumers are over twice as likely to say they look at a menu board at a fast casual restaurant every single time they visit, compared to a convenience store. Menu board engagement varies by the type of consumer, as well — how often they shop at a particular type of operation, or their age group. Millennials are more likely to look at the menu board frequently, confirming that they are most likely to be looking for new favorites or experiences.
  2. Digital menu boards are not as common as you think. Though they have received a lot of attention in the industry, only 16% of operators have a digital menu board. Yet digital menu boards can solve many key issues that both consumers and operators have, including incorporating more menu items and item descriptions, allowing for more design flexibility, and making it possible to update the board more often.
  3. Operators are missing out on sales opportunities. Nearly 60% of patrons say they look to a menu board for promotions and specials, but only 39% said that information was very easy to find. In fact, there were multiple menu parts that exhibited a gap between customers’ desired information and how easy they are able to find that information. We also uncovered the menu categories that operators are much less likely to include on menu boards, including check-boosting items like desserts, side dishes, and alcoholic beverages — only 1 in 10 operators who serve alcohol said they included alcoholic beverage information on the menu board.
  4. Photos are critical. Virtually all patrons consider photos to be important on menu boards, and this was particularly true for Millennials. But consumers also considered photos to be more important for particular categories — 43% said they preferred to see photos for promotions or LTOs. Yet those preferences didn’t always match the menu categories that operators are most likely to show photos for, and many operators may not appreciate the appeal and impact of photos, though this varies by operator type.
  5. Operators have issues as well. It’s not just consumers who report challenges with menu boards — four out of five operators said they have some type of issue with their menu board. The most common management issue? Thirty-five percent of operators reported not having enough room for detailed menu descriptions, and 1/3 said it was difficult to organize the board so customers could easily think through an entire order. We also asked operators to report their most common customer complaints regarding menu boards, from incomplete information to difficulty reading boards.

This is just a small peek into this one-of-a-kind report. We also looked at why patrons look at menu boards, the impact of calorie counts, and the segments that are more likely to change their menu more often. We asked operators where they found their menu board inspiration, from competitors to trade shows. And we asked consumers to rate menu boards at restaurant and convenience store brands to uncover the “best in class” performers. We also took a deep dive into drive-thru menu boards and the particular issues associated with them. And we found the innovations that consumers most want to see on a menu board — and it’s not necessarily what operators plan on incorporating into their board.

While we uncovered a number of challenges for both consumers and operators, many of the issues have clear solutions, and there are certainly opportunities to increase both customer and operator satisfaction. The real question that today’s operators must ask themselves is, “What is the true function of the menu board?” Is it merely to inform patrons of what is available? Should it serve as an educator? Or should it drive up average check sizes? Answering these questions is critical to designing menu boards more effectively in the future, and this report kicks off that discussion.

Maeve Webster is the senior director and Mike Kostyo is the publications manager at Datassential, a leading supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase the Menu Board Keynote Report mentioned in this article contact Webster at 312-655-0596 or


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