Toronto-based SecondMenu launched this week in private beta to help restaurant owners turn their menu into a multi-device friendly digital menu. Unlike other digital menu startups like E La Carte, the company doesn’t replace a paper menu; instead, it allows patrons to browse, bookmark and share menu items on any device while they’re at a restaurant. The tool is a web application that allows restaurant owners to input their menu items online, and then the menu is then shareable via a unique URL that’s compatible with tablets and smartphones (desktop coming soon). It also features full Facebook integration and a QR code that patrons can scan to view the “second menu.” The company hasn’t tested with any restaurants yet, but will be adding restaurants on the waitlist during the beta period.
SecondMenu founder Ben Roberts noticed the trend of restaurants putting their menus on iPads after it was released, but saw a barrier to entry because of the cost of the hardware. “A wine menu works because you don’t need more than one, but what about a paper menu that every diner needs? We decided that since many people already had the hardware in their pocket in the form of their phone, why not try to create a digital menu experience for these devices,” Roberts said in an interview.
He said they decided to do a web-based solution rather than an app to make sure any diner can interact with a digital menu. “The choice of developing a web app means diners don’t have to venture to the App Store and download an app,” Roberts said. “We want quick, seamless engagement so that diners can browse their menu immediately.” These second menus allow customers to add the foods they’ve eaten to their Facebook Timeline, and bookmark items they like using the My Meal feature. Users can also personalize and filter menu options based on their preferences. Roberts gives the example of vegetarians and gluten-intolerant diners filtering the items they can actually order, and said they will be adding many more kinds of preference-based filtering.
The company is currently targeting small chain and independent restaurants, who would in theory add the SecondMenu URL and QR code to their paper menu.”Our focus has been to transform a traditional paper menu into an interactive application that is intuitive to use,” Roberts said. “Food and drink descriptions are the reasons menus exist so presenting the text and images in a beautifully designed and easy to navigate way is extremely important.” Unlike tablet menu solutions that usually involve some level of setup, with SecondMenu the onus is on restaurant owners to create their menus online and upload all items, descriptions and associated photos. This can be a laborious process for restauranteurs who aren’t tech-savvy, or who have multiple menus with a long list of dishes, especially when it’s supplementing existing menus rather than providing a replacement.
Similar to tablet menu solutions, the beta version of the tool offers analytics to restaurant owners – they can see the number of dishes their customers have shared on Facebook; total visits to their SecondMenu URL and a graph of activity over time; how often customers add items to the My Meal feature; and a breakdown of the most popular dishes that have been saved. Roberts said they’ll be adding more robust analytics as they progress through the beta period.
SecondMenu is one of many startups attempting to help restaurants go digital. While SecondMenu is meant to complement paper menus rather than replace them, companies like E La Carte are making traditional menus digital. Roberts said the problem with digital menu solutions is that they require iPads or other hardware solutions. “Restaurants operate on very tight profit margins and the reality is that most restaurants simply cannot afford to purchase enough iPads or tablets for all of their tables,” he said. “Even once purchased, the task of tracking, securing, cleaning and updating the hardware is simply not something most restaurateurs can afford to worry about.”
But while the restaurants do incur a cost for their hardware, digital menus also promise up to 15 percent more sales per table, which could justify the cost down the road. Rajit Marwah is the founder of Plate, a digital menu startup based in San Francisco. Their solution, which provides tablet menus and back-end analytics, costs $30 per month per tablet, plus the cost of hardware. “This is more than paper, but unlike paper for every $1 restaurants invest in this new concept they should return $5-$10,” Marwah said in an interview. “A single upsell of a starter, wine, or dessert a day more than pays for the investment.”
During SecondMenu’s beta period it will be free for restaurants to sign up, and the tool will eventually cost around $20 per month. As they test with restaurants they may consider adding features like ordering, which would put them in direct competition with existing digital menu companies. “As adoption rates increase and restaurants see the benefit of the system, we may incorporate ordering features into the app,” Roberts said.
Plate and E La Carte bring up questions about whether restaurants, especially independent ones, can afford to replace traditional menus with tablet menus, but they do ensure that a customer will interact with their menu, since there’s no other option. SecondMenu’s solution, while inexpensive, doesn’t guarantee that a diner will interact with the digital menu, and puts the onus on restaurant owners to create and promote their digital second menus. If paper menus are put in front of a diner, there’s no incentive to visit a digital menu on their smartphone while at the table. As restaurants increasingly go digital, they will have to decide whether to incorporate a low-barrier-to-entry solution like SecondMenu, or a more robust but more expensive menu solution like Plate.