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How one Australian firm is creating smarter menus

Me&u’s smart menus are intelligent enough to recommend food items based on customer preferences, and even help to reduce food waste and alleviate bartender workloads during peak periods

Australian mobile ordering and payment technology provider me&u had been catering to the hospitality industry, but the onset of the pandemic opened up new business opportunities in the food and beverage sector.

Its systems are now being used by seven of Australia’s top 10 pub groups and has established itself in the UK and US markets, thanks to the accelerated adoption of digital menus and ordering.

There were two main factors involved. On the customer side, public health measures meant that even people who previously had no idea about QR codes soon became familiar with them and seeing one on a pub or cafe table was part of everyday life. “This definitely helped adoption,” said Kishan Modi, chief product officer of me&u.

At the same time, operators were widely encouraged – and in the UK mandated – to operate at-table ordering in pubs to minimise movements around the premises and help maintain social distancing. There was also concern that the virus could be spread through contact with surfaces such as physical menus, but the risk turned out to be low.

Some providers took a very limited approach and did little more than present customers with a static image of the venue’s menu.

But me&u’s goal was to “make menus smarter”, said Modi, so menu items are presented dynamically.

The order in which items appear on a customer’s device is largely determined by a business intelligence system built into the me&u backend.

Hard data

Key considerations are the day of the week and time of day. For example, customers are more likely to order coffee than beer at 10am on a weekday, but that might be reversed at 6pm on a Friday. The point is that with me&u, this isn’t a matter of guesswork – it’s based on hard data.

The system goes further by keeping track of customer preferences as expressed by what they order, how much they spend and when. So, if someone usually orders a side of fries to go with their burger, those two items appear together.

More generally, the menu is smartly sorted for customers, said Modi. This is generally similar to the way streaming video services put the shows one is already watching near the top of their menus, and also surface shows and movies that have been watched by other people with similar habits.

But this is a commercial world, so there’s something in it for venue operators, too.

Modi said the system works rather like the way an experienced waiter will recognise a customer and offer, for example, “the usual Shiraz?” and probably bring them a large glass.

And mirroring the familiar “would you like fries with that?”, me&u can put popular items such as a bowl of potato wedges at or near the top of the menu, prompting customers to order them.

Adding items

Furthermore, the fact that it’s so easy to add an item to an order makes it likely customers will do so, thus spending more.

There can be a tension between customers’ desire to order the items they like – and to order them quickly – with a venue operator’s wish to promote certain dishes and drinks. So, while the system’s smart sorting presents salad before chips if that’s what the customer usually picks, the operator can recommend, say, sweet potato mash as an alternative, or even a new main dish.

This approach is the equivalent of the traditional specials board, said Modi. If the venue wants to promote specific dishes or drinks according to the time of day and day of the week, that’s what will appear at the top of the menu, overruling the business intelligence engine’s recommendations. This feature is a good way of promoting offers in partnership with beverage suppliers, such as a special price on a certain champagne, he added.

The system also supports “quick sells” – if a customer only orders a drink, it can prompt them by suggesting a suitable snack, such as a cookie with coffee, or chips with beer.

“At the end of the day, it’s their menu,” said Modi, but me&u’s approach provides “an elegant balance” between the needs of the venue and those of the customer. To that end, the company’s product team is divided into separate groups representing the interests of the two stakeholders.

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Me&u even integrates with point-of-sale systems to ensure that customers aren’t presented with choices that aren’t available.

So, me&u is partly about providing a good experience, and partly about upselling, but there are other benefits.

One of them is a reduction in food waste. “People make mistakes when ordering with wait staff,” said Modi, even if they sometimes blame the staff for their own errors. Me&u provides visibility of the actual order, so customers can see they were served what they ordered, and consequently less food is returned.

Another comes from a recently introduced feature that supports group tabs for situations such as work functions or certain celebrations. The “host” customer opens the tab and sets a limit on the aggregate spend but can also limit the range of items that guests can order, for example, to wine and beer and no spirits, or to beer and pizza. Then, that’s all that guests on the group’s tables see on the menu.

It’s even possible for a venue to temporarily take items off the menu to smooth out peaks in demand. For example, if a bar is busier than the staff can cope with, the manager might stop selling cocktails for 15 minutes, allowing the bartenders to catch up by serving only easily poured drinks.

Few competing products offer this capability, according to Modi, and one of the reasons it is important is that venues report up to a 50% increase in sales after adopting me&u, so the workload has to be managed.

With me&u, Modi said “it’s no longer just a static digital menu … it’s about using data in an elegant fashion” to provide venues and their customers with “a significant improvement”.

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