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Startups Menus outside restaurants are more powerful than you think

An UNOapp ‘digital menu box’ outside Crush restaurant in Toronto.

digitalmenubox.com

"Everybody knows us because it's a piece of hardware," says Olivier Centner – but the real cleverness of his company's products, which are reshaping the public faces of restaurants, lies off screen.

The former restaurateur is founder and CEO of UNOapp, a Toronto-based business with 28 employees that's behind many of the "digital menu boxes" popping up outside of restaurants across North America. Six years ago, Mr. Centner devised a low-cost, all-in-one solution for installing weather-proof monitors.

"A digital menu box is able to communicate the right message at the right time to the right audience," he explains.

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Not only do the screens make sure the right menus are displayed at the right time of day, they can be set to run promotions based on environmental conditions: If it's below five degrees, say, a restaurant can showcase a splashy ad for soup and hot chocolate. If it's above 20 degrees, it can break out some appealing art of iced tea. More than 2,000 of the boxes are now in service in Canada and the United States.

But the highly visible screens are just one part of what UNOapp does. Its software gives restaurants the tools to co-ordinate promotions on every platform – websites, Facebook, Twitter, the digital menu boxes, and even print materials on posters and on tables. And the company hosts an in-house creative department to keep these channels stocked with ready-to-go campaigns for client restaurants.

Some promotions revolve around calendar events. Ahead of St. Patrick's Day, for instance, UNOapp will prompt its clients about their plans, and offer them pre-built campaigns.

Other promotions are tied to more sporadic events. If the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing one night, UNOapp can automatically post watch-the-game-here ads outside a restaurant, while a Facebook page can host a predict-the-winner contest. (The company imports and maintains a variety of data feeds on everything from weather to sports, which clients can trigger events around.)

Pre-built marketing content appeals to independent restaurateurs, but UNOapp is also finding success with chains, such as Manchu Wok, the Firkin pubs, and U.S.-based Fleming's steakhouses, which uses its tools to build a library of campaigns and ad materials that have been approved by corporate headquarters, and then offers them to franchisees to use as they see fit.

"We don't replace restaurants' marketing departments," Mr. Centner says. "We remove the friction of execution. We give them the reminders to make sure they never miss opportunities."

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