Digital Menu Boards: How and Why to Modernize Your Shop’s Displays

Article originally written for and featured in Square’s Seller Community:
https://www.sellercommunity.com/t5/Business-Resources/Digital-Menu-Boards-How-and-Why-to-Modernize-Your-Shop-s/td-p/258870

Things change with your business. Expenses go up and then your prices go up too. You come up with a new idea and your product line changes. With a standard Menu Board, it takes time, money, and effort to change your menu. You might have a chalk board that can get messy, or a magnetic or vinyl board with new pieces that need to be made, or even a printed board that needs to be completely replaced.

Because of the added effort and cost, you might even hold off on making any changes to your menu or pricing that it takes. While you never know when this might happen, it’s a lot easier to make these changes with a Digital Menu Board.

We took the jump and set up TV Menu boards in our store, and have seen so many benefits as a result.

My Shop’s Menu Board Journey

I own and run Pesso’s Ices & Ice Cream, a small ice cream shop in suburban Queens, New York. We make every flavor ourselves right in the back, so we constantly change up our flavor line up, with brand new creations replacing older and less popular flavors that are due to retire. We’ve had anywhere from 60 to 130 flavors at any point in time, so it was next to impossible to keep our menu accurate.

When we started, the shop came with a Glossy Paint Marker style menu board already installed, which was pretty difficult to update, and got very messy very quickly. We then upgraded to a printed foam core menu board that we couldn’t add to, so it would be up for anywhere from 1 to 4 years. Our interim solution was to add a White board underneath it with New Flavors, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of having old flavors up on the menu that we couldn’t remove.

We piloted the idea of switching to Digital Menu Boards by replacing that dry erase board with two TVs, as a test run to see how it would look and work. The test worked well enough, so the next year we went on to upgrade our entire menu board to digital, with a total of 9 TVs. We have now been using our digital only menu board for over 4 years, and we absolutely love it, and so do our customers.

Our menu and flavor list is always up to date, so we never have customers asking for flavors that are on the board but we don’t have anymore. This saves time and aggravation for both our customers and our employees, since what they see is what we have. We can change our prices or flavor names at the drop of a hat if needed, without needing to invest money or wait to do so. I also worked in a couple of slideshows to showcase featured flavors, products that may not be at the top of mind, and just add an extra visual appeal with irresistible mouthwatering photos and videos.

Setting it Up

We needed a system that was easy for me to set up, and even easier for my employees to keep updated and reset if anything went wrong.

When I first started searching for options, there didn’t seem to be any popular easy & cheap system of setting this up. Every system I saw had expensive hardware plus additional expensive monthly subscription fees. So instead, I came up with my own. It took just the right combination of hardware and software to make it happen, and I’ll walk you through what I did.

This is by no means the definitive way to set up a digital menu board for your business, it is simply just what I did for my shop.

Software

First came the idea of using Google Slides as the main system. This works both for static Menu Boards that just display a single page of set flavors or Menu Items, as well as Slideshows that automatically flip through a multiple pages or images. The only thing that it wouldn’t work for is videos, which wasn’t really a deal breaker for us, but I did find a work around of converting short videos to GIFs that do work with Slides. The best way to display the Google Slides would probably be on a Web browser, so I started the rest of this process with the end goal of a Web Browser, specifically Chrome, in mind.

I set up a separate Google Account to log into whichever device I would use to display these screens and slides, so nothing else would accidentally be displayed. I created my slides in my main Google Account, and then shared them with this secondary account. I then went into Google Slides, and clicked on Publish to the Web so I could get a standard Web Address that I could open on a Web Browser. I then logged into Chrome with this secondary account, and set up my Bookmark Bar with the links to these slides.

I also installed and activated this chrome extension called Keep Awake (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/keep-awake/bijihlabcfdnabacffofojgmehjdielb) so that the slides would keep playing and it wouldn’t time out and turn off the TVs.

It took some creative problem solving to get some flavor lists to extend across two monitors, but lining up the graphics and extending borders through slides made it work really well.

Hardware

With the software side ready and figured out, I had to figure out what the best hardware would be. Smart TV’s might not be able to have Google Slides or a Web Browser, and neither would an Apple TV or a standard Chromecast, without having an additional device streaming or casting over to it.

In my search, I found these Google Chromebits (https://amzn.to/3dvpvEH) which are little sticks that plug right into an HDMI port, but are actually essentially full-stand alone chrome-based computers. This isn’t a perfect solution because they need a keyboard and mouse each, so I found these multi-device bluetooth Keyboard (https://amzn.to/3kbc6Ec) and Mouse (https://amzn.to/2H9o1Ur), that each work with 3 devices. So we set up 9 TVs, so we bought 9 Chromebits, 3 Keyboards, and 3 Mice. In the end, we didn’t really need the keyboards because we only use them to type in the password once in a blue moon if it gets reset, and we can use the on-screen keyboard with the mouse instead of having three physical ones.

We wall mounted the TV’s and when we angled them down, there was enough space to mount Surge Protectors behind them, with enough outlets to plug in the TV’s and the Chromebits.

Things I Would Change

After living with this setup for 4 years, we’re really happy that we made the switch. It’s so easy to always have an always updated menu, without having to do any manual work of printing things out, or holding off on a change until we have the time or money.

One thing that is less fun, is that there are a lot of moving parts and things that can fail. Lately we’ve had a few of our Chromebits and TVs just fail and need to be replaced, connection issues with the keyboard and mouse, and a few other issues. Most of these are to be expected, with them being always on 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The biggest downside is that with COVID, we’re doing all of our sales from our Walk Up Window. Because of the way it’s positioned, the only real way we can set things up is with a printed menu. There isn’t enough support to set up TV’s by the window, so while customers can see the TV’s from our other window from outside, when they order they’re stuck looking at our printed menu. So we’ve had to continue to update that one in the meantime while we figure out a better solution. But hopefully soon we’ll go back to having customers in our store and taking full advantage of our beautiful Digital Displays.

Key Points & Summary

Overall, despite it not being perfect, we absolutely love having our digital menu boards. It’s been a huge upgrade to your business operations, and has made things smoother, easier, and faster for our customers and our staff. Making the switch has definitely been worth it, and I can’t imagine running my business without our new menu displays.

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