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One of the hallmarks of the traditional bar and restaurant experience has always been the printed menu. Whether the menu is simply a piece of paper, or much more of an elaborate presentation (such as a leather-bound book), a printed menu is a quick, easy way for bar and restaurant patrons to see at a glance what options they have when ordering a cocktail, mixed drink or glass of wine. So it might sound downright contrarian, but some bars and restaurants are doing away with printed menus entirely.
Instead of printed menus, customers are simply directed to check out their phones, or a tablet, or a giant TV screen positioned above the bar. Jupiter Disco, a sci-fi themed bar in the hipster neighborhood of Bushwick in New York City, uses what it refers to as a “digital chalkboard” – a giant overhead TV screen with retro, 1980’s style computer graphics. Trash Tiki in London posts its menus only on Instagram, and warns customers to take a screen shot of the menu before entering the establishment. And Terrapin in Virginia Beach uses a tablet-based wine list, in which customers are invited to scroll through the various wine options.
The obvious question, of course, is: Why get rid of the printed menu? After all, if it isn’t broken, why fix it? In each of the three cases above – Jupiter Disco, Trash Tiki and Terrapin – there is actually a business case for transitioning beyond the printed menu.
Consider, for example, Jupiter Disco, which is aiming for a cool, sci-fi aesthetic that invokes both “Terminator” and “Alien.” The idea of designing a sci-fi menu option fit in well with the overall aesthetic. So the bar worked with a third-party firm (Digital Cloud Designs) in order to connect software to the bar’s POS systems. That enables bartenders and wait staff members to use iPads to make updates and changes to the drinks menu on the fly.
Another reason to re-think the printed menu has to do with sustainability and the overall “green” message of bars and restaurants. Trash Tiki, which makes new and inventive tiki drinks out of kitchen scraps and is 100 percent committed to the green, sustainability theme, views the shift to digital as a way to help save the environment. Since customers heading out to Trash Tiki also buy into the whole “green message,” there’s no risk of alienating the core client base. Also, given the “scraps” approach to cocktails, creations are going to shift on a nightly basis, so going all-digital also makes changing menus much more convenient.
By shifting over to a tablet-based wine list, Terrapin hopes to improve the overall customer experience. With a traditional printed wine list, there is always a risk that a bottle of wine is no longer available. But you don’t have that problem with a cloud-based wine list that is plugged into the restaurant’s POS system. In a given night, if a certain wine varietal is no longer available by the glass, then customers can see that immediately.
In addition, by shifting to a digital wine list, there is the opportunity for greater one-on-one interaction with bartenders, sommeliers and mixologists. That’s especially the case at drinking establishments like hole-in-the-wall speakeasies, where one-on-one interaction between the bartender and the patron is encouraged. As customers migrate to smaller craft spirits, and as mixologists devise ever more creative cocktails, trying to capture the flavor, essence and texture of those creations with simply a paper menu is close to impossible.
And, of course, there is the cost savings aspect of doing away with the paper menu. There are no printing costs, no paper costs, and no worries about customers accidentally spilling drinks on menus or otherwise losing them. For bars and restaurants already existing on razor-thin margins, the chance to carve out some additional cost savings is a welcome opportunity.
Some might argue that the push to get rid of paper menus started long ago, well before the advent of the digital era. Consider just some of the innovations that bars and restaurants have used to advertise their drinks – such as chalkboards (easy to update and change on a daily basis), letterboards, and wine lists on mirrors. So, the move to phone-based, tablet-based or TV-based menus is really nothing new – it is just the continuation of a long trend in which on-premise establishments have tried to stand out from the crowd by having a different type of menu experience.
Moreover, there is one more factor supporting the transition from paper menus to digital menus: the ubiquity of digital devices. It’s now impossible to go to a bar or restaurant where patrons are not taking selfies, studiously photographing each new cocktail or dish, and immersing themselves in the digital realm (i.e. text messaging friends while conversing with people actually present at the bar). So if people are already taking out their phones as soon as they arrive at a bar, then why not tap into that trend? Bars and restaurants can safely assume that most (if not all) of their customers will now be bringing along smartphones with them.
In the bar and restaurant world, there will always be room for creativity and innovation. Technology is helping to reshape every single facet of the bar experience, so why not the menu instead? Who knows? Maybe in a few years, we’ll have hologram menus, or menus that can only be accessed in virtual reality.
As long as the move to digital menus improves the customer experience, and ties in with the overall vibe or aesthetic of a bar, there’s no reason to believe that what is now just a few innovative examples might soon blossom into a full-on movement. Cost savings, sustainability, and enhanced customer service – those are the three big factors right now leading bars and restaurants away from printed menus.