Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened concerns over germs, customers now have an option to access a bar or restaurant’s menu without laying their hands on it.
Touchless Menu is a new technology-based product that hit the local market in July. It’s about the size of a playing card and it allows people to access the online menu of a bar or restaurant by scanning a QR code through a phone’s camera or by tapping the device with their phone to use near-field communication technology, which allows nearby devices to communicate without an internet connection.
Co-founders Dylan Rauhoff and John McQueary launched the device at The Order and Vantage Rooftop Lounge and Conservatory. Both venues are located within Hotel Vandivort, co-owned by McQueary.
“The pandemic was definitely the spark,” Rauhoff said of bringing the product to market. Both he and McQueary declined to disclose their investment in the product. The two teamed up to develop its technology.
“Because of our relations with the hotel, we were able to use that as a little bit of a learning ground,” McQueary said. “We took some time for research before we pushed to expand to make sure the product was exactly as we wanted.”
Rauhoff, a five-year employee of Hotel Vandivort, left his role in July as food and beverage director to focus full time on the new entrepreneurial venture. The idea was born during a two-month period in the spring when the hotel was closed during the pandemic and considering a reopening plan.
“We wanted to keep our guests safe, so we wanted to use disposable menus. But there’s a lot of waste there, obviously,” he said. “How can I reduce the amount of waste we’re going to have from that?”
The product has adhesive pads that allow it to be adhered to a flat surface. It also can be cleaned and sanitized along with tables and bar counters, Rauhoff said.
Since its launch, Touchless Menu has been deployed to roughly 15 bars and restaurants, with 13 of those in the Springfield area, Rauhoff said. Scaling on a national level is part of future plans. He said the technology was developed in-house.
Menus accessible through mobile devices aren’t new in the industry. Some products, such as St. Petersburg, Florida-based GoZone WiFi’s Easy-Fi, offer menus through a restaurant’s Wi-Fi signal.
Eye on costs
Menu costs can vary based on the design and number printed, Rauhoff said, adding menus purchased for the hotel cost roughly $2,000 for 115 menus. Most bars and restaurants could pay hundreds of dollars monthly when needing to print new menus to accommodate product or price updates, he said. Touchless Menu eliminates the need for those additional costs, as it allows businesses to make instant and unlimited online menu changes.
The product sells for $10 per menu for industry professionals, with an optional $10 monthly website hosting fee. The additional fee aims at restaurants or bars without a website or online menu, Rauhoff said.
“We’ll host a PDF of their menu and allow them to have access to that,” he said, noting restaurants have averaged an order of 25 menus. “We know restaurants operate within very thin margins and we’re wanting to keep our products very cost-effective for them.”
Touchless Menu comes at a challenging time for bars and restaurants, which are just starting to see jobs bounce back from a major decline brought on by the pandemic in the spring.
The leisure and hospitality industry added 3,600 jobs in August from July, with 3,100 of those in accommodation and food services, according to Missouri Economic Research and Information Center data. Still, the industry has shed over 41,000 jobs from a year prior – nearly a 16% drop. Missouri’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for August was 7%, up from 6.9% in July.
McQueary said the pandemic allows Touchless Menu to become commonplace and customers to get more comfortable using it for safety and convenience.
“That opens the door to exploring other advantages that an online menu can have,” he said, adding new features of the product are in development.
Restaurants open for multiple meal services soon will be able to have different menus instantly available for customers to bring up on their phone depending on when they visit. McQueary said he expects to have that feature available by November.
Split Social Kitchen, which opened in early July, started using Touchless Menu around the start of August.
“First of all, it’s a great idea. It’s a great way to save paper,” said co-owner Kristen Douglas. “We can update things on the menu online within a couple of minutes. We don’t have to spend as much time sanitizing every single time.”
The restaurant has plastic covers over its physical menus that are offered for anyone not wanting to use the new technology.
“Most people are really receptive. People who really don’t understand it will ask questions,” she said. “Some of our older clientele doesn’t know how to use it, but we show them and they think it’s amazing and a whole new world has opened up.”
B.J. Lowrance, owner of bar and live music venue The Royal, said good word-of-mouth from Chris Brown, co-owner of downtown bar MudLounge, got him to start using Touchless Menu earlier this month. Aside from the safety factor for customers, he’s impressed with the ease of menu updating.
“It just makes so much sense,” Lowrance said. “So many things happen from the time you make a menu to the time you switch. Pricing your products can change, things don’t sell like you thought they would.”
Lowrance said he spent about $200 to get 50 paper menus printed upon opening in June. He’s on the verge of unveiling his fall and winter menu, and knows he can make changes to it at anytime with the new product. It also links straight to his website, where he posts music show updates. Those have been limited to virtual concerts amid the pandemic, he said.
Touchless Menu joins other technological products that have been part of the restaurant industry for years, such as point-of-sale systems and online ordering on restaurant websites. While the hands-free menu device was created during the pandemic, Rauhoff said it was an inevitable industry addition.
Douglas and Lowrance said their establishments utilize point-of-sale systems, noting customers still prefer staff handle their credit or debit cards rather than make contactless payments. Both said sanitizing common touch points such as check processing stations and pens is practiced frequently.
“It’s kind of just a habit now,” Douglas said.
Touchless Menu’s creators believe their device isn’t just a temporary convenience for consumers and restaurants.
“Online menus will be the future of our industry,” Rauhoff said. “It allows the restaurant and the operator flexibility to change the menu as they need to versus having to wait for reprinting all their menus on a full run.”
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