The History of Menu Boards I

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                                       My First Menu Board

Ok, maybe I don’t go as far back as the photo above suggests, but I have been in the menu board business a long time. I’ve been involved with designing and manufacturing menu boards for over 45 years now and that’s about how long the product has existed. I have always loved developing new products and new technology that solved problems for my customers, increased their sales or reduced their cost. In February of 2011, a friend of mine, in charge of the NAFEM show in Orlando, asked me to present the keynote address at that show as a menu board expert. I was to present to a large group of architects and specifiers on the history and future of menu boards. That turned out to be one of the most enjoyable presentations I have ever given.

I came across a copy of that presentation a few days ago and after reviewing it decided it would be interesting, and helpful to some, to do a series of blogs on what I presented at that show with some updates. It was interesting for me to see how much has changed just in the past 7 years and how close I was in predicting those changes. It’s difficult for me to remember actual dates but the dates I give will be close.

In The Beginning 1970’s:

When I began in the menu board business in 1969, menu boards had just started being used at most QSR chains. Two of my first customers were Arby’s and Burger King. I also designed and manufactured menu boards for a few other markets such as automotive service and parts suppliers, banks and convenient stores. We also supplied menu boards and displays to soft drink companies such as Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up and Dr. Pepper, for their customers.

The menu boards were very simple with copy explaining the item and a price printed on a sheet of plastic installed in a lightbox. Some were illuminated and some were not. No product photography was used. There were not nearly as many items offered as there is today so the boards were much smaller. Because of the need to change items and pricing more often change number one came about. We started welding plastic tracks to the sheet of plastic and introduced item strips and price chips. The menu item was printed on a strip of plastic that slid into the tracks. Menu items and prices could be changed without having to change the complete panel.

In the early 1970’s I developed and had installed the first drive-thru operation in the QSR market. We had to develop the speaker, microphone system, and vehicle detection system from scratch because we knew of no other place it existed. We put the speaker and microphone in a large box at the speaker post and in the drive-thru window with buttons, you had to push to speak. We installed the first system in an Arby’s restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio. We later introduced it to the Arby’s system at a trade show in Texas. We set up an actual system inside the conference center with menu boards, signs, speaker system and a drive-thru window. We drove a car up to the speaker post and drive-thru menu board where the driver actually placed an order with the person in the drive-thru window. At the end of the presentation, we received a standing ovation with loud cheering from the Arby’s franchisees.

The introduction of drive-thru service brought about the second significant change to our industry, and that was the addition of drive-thru menu boards and communication systems.

In looking back at the menu board industry it seems changes in the industry were significant enough to require large systemwide retrofits or replacements about every 6-8 years. The third one of these retrofits came when the industry learned good photography of the menu items increased sales. That also started the problem of a lack of space on the menu board, along with the ever-increasing number of items.

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