A Brave New World
Anthony Head / photo by Kirk Weddle
FOOD MENUS GET THE DIGITAL TREATMENT WITH MENUVATIVE
It has to start somehow. And for Eric Arsenault, Wine & Spirits Director for the Michigan-based restaurant group Mainstreet Ventures, it started about three years ago.
"I was doing some work for one of our restaurant's websites and starting playing around with the idea of building a sub-website for the wine list, just to make it more interactive," Arsenault says. Then, when he saw someone sitting in a dining room holding an iPad, he thought to himself that the thin, lightweight device was certainly going to replace paper menus some day. That's how it started.
For Arsenault, who has an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, that "Aha!" moment led to researching various iPad-based wine apps. "But I didn't think that just sticking a wine list on a tablet was the real answer," he says. "There's so much technology sitting right in their hands. I knew we could take this concept a lot further."
When Arsenault approached Mike Gibbons, President of Mainstreet Ventures, he discovered that Gibbons was concerned about the possibility of a Congressional mandate to include nutritional information in restaurants: How would they incorporate such information onto menus that change weekly—not to mention nightly specials?
This was shaping up to be a perfect storm for a solution: Mandated changes were probably coming and there was digital technology out there that could save the day. So Arsenault created Menuvative, an interactive menu program that replicates—and enhances—restaurant menus by taking the traditional paper idea to new digital heights.
But Menuvative is a lot more than just on-screen menus. "It's a richer menu experience because there's a lot more information right at the customers' fingertips," says Arsenault, now also President of his new company, Imenutech. "It has the ability to list nutritional numbers and comprehensive dish descriptions, and there can be photos of every dish."
And that's not all. Because Arsenault is passionate about wine, he simultaneously created Pairing Pro, a content management system that delivers up to ten wines suggestions per dish. The program works by calculating specific values of food and wine. For the food, the scores are based on, for example, the weight of the dish, fat content and spice. For the wines, scores are based on tannins, acidity, earthiness, fruit, alcohol and residual sugar. Paring Pro then calculates the compatibility of dishes and wines and instantly presents the top wine selections for the customer on the same screen as the dish.
It may sound cold and inhuman, but Arsenault explains that it's the exact same mental computing sommeliers do every day. "Sommeliers have this same database of ingredients and wines in their heads. And I realized I could write an algorithm that would mimic sommelier logic very accurately."
The scores can be input by either the restaurant or Imenutech. All the information is managed via the web, stored in the cloud, and immediately synchronized to Android-compatible tablets through WiFi. Having recently been granted a U.S. patent, Pairing Pro has become the centerpiece of Menuvative's software, and it distinguishes itself from other digital menu programs.
Arsenault says that servers and sommeliers shouldn't think this technology will put anyone out of a job because it's not trying to undo the staff's role-especially in fine-dining restaurants, where service is still a major component of the experience.
For management and owners, Menuvative with Pairing Pro can dramatically reduce costs by eliminating the constant need to reprint menus. Plus, since the information is updated in real time to the tablets, menus and wine lists are far more accurate for customers. Additionally, there is greater control over the restaurant's branding because management can add any artwork and background images to the pages.
As for the bottom line, Arsenault explains that Menuvative has increased the check average-in some cases, as high as 30 percent-depending on the dining concept and how much the staff gets behind it. He is seeing actual dollar values going up by selling a greater variety of food and wines.
"The very first week we launched Menuvative with Pairing Pro in Ann Arbor, one of the recommended wines was a 1999 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc," says Arsenault. "Here's a $200 Rhône that had been sitting in the cellar for a decade. Even I had forgotten about it. And right away it sold with one of the lobster dishes. That is exactly what we had hoped for. It's changing ordering patterns and people are more likely to try different things."