Visitors at the 2005 North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers trade show are treated to so many innovative products that it’s difficult to focus on any specific one, but exhibitors of digital menuboards seemed to have little trouble garnering a crowd.

Bright LCD screens flash with words and images of food in the booth of Florida Plastics International, a company specializing in visual merchandising and menuboards. All the visual commotion seems to draw people in, as they stare at the moving screens.

“We call this a ‘Wow board,'” says Chip Shaw, a representative for the company, as he points to one of the displays commanding the attention of passersby. “They’re like movies, basically.”

Shaw explains that FPI has been in the menuboard business for 38 years, starting out with traditional back-lit “strip” menus, where individual products and prices are slid into slots on the display board. FPI still features menustrips but now recommends that they be used in conjunction with more dynamic digital merchandising displays.

Digital menuboards offer a lot in terms of convenience: Product or pricing information can be changed instantly with the stroke of a key, wheras alterations used to take much longer with menustrips. Shaw uses the example of changing the word “lemonade” on a menu to “pink lemonade.” “For a restaurant with 10,000 locations, a change like that could take up to 6-8 weeks to roll out,” he says.

One FPI client, California Tortilla, an airport-based quick-serve restaurant, has seen great success with its switch to 100 percent digital menuboarding, he says. “The key is to have lots of action to attract customers,” he says.

But Shaw says traditional static menu displays still have their place in quick-serves in some cases. “Digital is mostly about guiding and helping to make the decision-making process easier,” he says. “But for some things, like beverages, static menuboarding can still get the job done.”

He says his company focuses mostly on using the digital menuboards to drive customers to purchase what the restaurant wants them to buy by playing up promotions and certain items on the changing screens. To that end, he recommends a 30 percent/70 percent split between static and digital menus for the average quick-service client–mostly due to the high cost of going completely digital.

Harvey Friedman of Epicure Digital Menu Systems, however, says that cost is rapidly decreasing as digital technology becomes more prolific. “Consumers are buying LCD screens for their televisions,” he says. “You can’t even sell someone a tube anymore.”

Friedman says the cost of a 37-inch LCD screen was $5,500 in January of this year but has since fallen to around $3,500. “That’s going to keep falling,” he says, adding that he estimates the cost of three feet of LCD screen to fall to $1,000 in the next two years.

“We feel the whole future of the menuboard world is in digital,” Shaw agrees. But happens when everybody switches to digital menuboards? He explains that there’s still another frontier to be conquered by partnering with kiosk companies to provide the screen graphics that enhance the convenience offered by the touch screen technology.