Nutritional kiosks move into the spotlight
Nutritional kiosks have been deployed in the restaurant industry at somewhat of a trickling pace. Outside of a few fast casual concepts – Au Bon Pain café added them in 2003 and Uno's recently installed them at Uno Due Go – they remain largely nonexistent. However, some in the foodservice and technology industries are predicting that is about to change as menu labeling laws roll out later this year.
Jonathan Chan, a three-unit McDonald's owner/operator located in Texas, deployed a nutritional kiosk in his Richardson, Texas, location about two months ago. The equipment was created by QA Graphics, an Iowa-based creative design firm that has worked with other McDonald's franchisees for the deployment of its Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard.
While the deployment is not part of a larger strategy to launch nutritional kiosks throughout the McDonald's system, Chan said his decision has sparked widespread interest in the technology.
"My phone hasn't stopped ringing. So many operators want to know how they work and how customers have responded," he said.
How it works, how customers have responded
The Richardson McDonald's kiosk is located in the restaurant's lobby and allows customers to review the entire menu and nutritional information such as calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates. It includes a 42-inch LCD touchscreen that makes it easier for consumers to pick and choose meal combinations.
The kiosk includes a "Build Your Meal" tool that helps customers see the total nutritional breakdown of their selections. They're guided through four steps to choose an entrée, snacks or sides, beverages and dessert. (Check out screen shots here).
With each item, users are able to customize whether or not they want to reduce calories, sodium, etc. For example, if ordering a sandwich, the customer's nutritional information will change based on which condiments they choose, if they add cheese, etc. (See a video showing how the kiosk works here).
So far, Chan said, customers have responded mostly with curiosity.
"It's so new, so it's hard to really know the full response so far. Right now, it's just a great point of conversation and a good opportunity to be transparent and to talk openly about our food with our customers," he said.
Design and transparency
Chan admits he isn't thinking about a financial return on investment and can't predict how or when one would come. His two biggest motives with adding the kiosk were to complement the restaurant's new modern design and to offer as much transparency about the McDonald's menu as possible.
"I wanted to create a giant iPad that showed big, beautiful photos of our food. It's modern and it is consumer friendly, especially as more people become familiar with touchscreen technology," Chan said.
All of the nutritional information included in the kiosk is available in multiple areas such as the company's website and trayliners. But Chan believes a digital channel, that the customer can interact with and personalize, will better benefit the brand because of the layers of information it provides.
He adds that McDonald's and other quick-service companies are smart to offer as much information about their menus as possible, so consumers learn "it's not all bad."
"If we are upfront about everything with our food, and we share that information as much as we can and stand by our product, more people will realize we offer multiple options that are nutritious," he said. "Nutrition is something McDonald's is serious about and we need to inform our customers better."
Menu labeling and other benefits
Although Chan admits the menu labeling mandates were not part of his decision to install a nutritional kiosk, the federal law is a big reason this business is picking up. It's why QA Graphics began developing nutritional kiosks in the first place, according to Sarah Erdman, marketing director.
"This is a cutting edge way to stand out and to be upfront and provide this mandated nutritional information in a creative and visual way," she said.
Beth Osborne, director of marketing at Visual Impressions, which specializes in the design, manufacturing, fabrication and installation of digital signage merchandising solutions, added that her company's nutritional kiosk is also taking off, after having been in the research and development phase for about 12 months.
She also attributes the labeling laws as the biggest reason for increasing business, but adds that there are many other benefits to having one.
For example, in addition to displaying calorie, fat, sodium, etc., the kiosk can outline ingredients that are food allergy sensitive, cutting out any possibility of erroneous information relayed by an employee.
"Customers can easily sort by dietary needs, which can cause them to possibly eat at a place more if they're aware of the offerings that fit their specific needs," Osbourne explained.
Restaurants also can add tips on how to cut calories while selecting a meal. Chan, for example, said he wants to eventually add a feature onto his kiosk that allows the user to enter how many calories they are aiming for, and have the technology present what meal combinations fall within that goal.
There also is an upselling/marketing opportunity, as such a device may suggest adding a side item or drink to the meal.
"There are many opportunities to put additional information on the kiosk, such as LTOs, loyalty cards, brand information," Osbourne said. "It's another opportunity to have an interactive experience with your customer."
These are all benefits Osbourne and Erdman believe will boost the popularity of nutritional kiosks sooner than later. Chan doesn't make such predictions, but he does hope it catches on.
"Customers now want all the information they can get and this is a positive way to be as transparent as possible," he said. "This is a good way to get people to know we're moving in the right direction about the food we offer."
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Alicia Kelso Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.