How Much Does A Digital Drive-Thru Cost?

How Much Does A Digital Drive-Thru Cost?


Digital drive-thru menus are becoming increasingly popular due to their ability to improve customer experience, reduce wait times, and increase sales. As a leading provider of drive-thru solutions, The Howard Company receives frequent inquiries from customers about the cost of digital drive-thru menus. In this blog post, we'll explore the various factors that influence the cost of a digital drive-thru and provide an estimate of what customers can expect to pay. 

Digital drive-thru menu boards consist of 4 major elements: the enclosure, the screens, the electrical and data connectivity components, and the content.

1. The enclosure is important in that it has to protect against the elements while ensuring that the screens are properly vented. Most are either steel or extruded aluminum. The enclosure can range from around $3,500 - $12,000. Why such a big range? Some factors that you will have to think about include:

  • How many screens do you need? Obviously, a 3-screen enclosure is going to be more costly than a 1-screen enclosure.
  • Do you need a tall pedestal? The pedestal is the pole that holds up the frame for the screens. You might want a tall pedestal if you are adding speaker and mic options to the enclosure. Also, restaurants that predominantly serve people who drive trucks or SUV's might consider having the frame a little higher.
  • Will you want the attached speaker and mic boxes? It is a much cleaner-looking installation with the attached speaker and mic, rather than a detached speaker post. 
  • Are you considering an all-in-one system? This means that the canopy and menu board frame are a single unit. Adding the canopy will put the price at the higher end of the spectrum.
  • Are you in a high wind-load area? If you are, expect that to add around $400 to the price. 
  • If you are doing a wall-mounted system, there is less metal in the frame, so they will be cheaper, especially in bigger sizes. But the price will also include the additional mounting hardware and custom engineering required to be able to access the system from the front, rather than the back. (If you are considering a wall-mounted system, the ability to access the "guts" post-installation is something you should not overlook.)

2. The major brands of outdoor digital screens are all similar in price, in the $5,000 range. The most important thing to remember when making this investment is that you need to get outdoor-rated screens. Off-the-shelf big box store tv's don't stand a chance. Consider the following:

  • The industry standard size is 55", and most screens are installed in portrait. Smaller screens often mean smaller type size, which is more difficult to read from at a distance from a vehicle. Portrait is preferred to landscape because, at that size, it would be very difficult to view an entire 3-screen menu from a car. A good percentage of the menu would be wasted space because customers would have a hard time seeing it. 
  • Check the outdoor digital ratings. The two crucial specs you should consider are NITS (is it going to be visible in direct sunlight), and IP Rating (is it protected from dust and water). For more on outdoor ratings, please view the full outdoor digital ratings guide here.

3. In addition to the frame and screens, there are several items that would need to be included to have a fully functioning digital drive-thru. Those items consist of:

  • Dedicated internet connection. This is not something to overlook. Do not cut corners on the internet connection! Why? Because the major appeal of digital technology is that it is dynamic. Somehow that dynamic content - gorgeous images and eye-catching videos - have to get to the screens. A connection shared with other applications will probably not have the capacity to play what you want your customers to see.  Talk to your general contractor and internet provider.
  • Media player. This is the computer that runs the content software. It can either be integrated into the screen itself, which is referred to as SOC (system on chip), or it may be a separate external player. If you want to synchronize content across a 2- or 3-screen display, you need a media player. Also, SOC may not be robust enough to process large video files or streaming. If you opt for an external player, the cost will very depending on how many ports it has. Expect to spend around $400-$600 per screen for the media player.
  • Data cabling. Cat6 is now the norm for this type of application to conduct data from the internet source to the media players. The length of the cable required for this process will vary depending on the location of the board and the source of the content. When installing, be generous with the conduit size so that, if you ever decide to increase the number of screens, you will have the capacity built-in. HDMI cables are also needed to connect the external media players to the screens. This is totally dependent on your particular configuration.
  • Screen warranty. Occasionally, screens may fail. The cost is minimal considering the cost if an unprotected screen goes down. Typically, warranties last between 3-5 years and offer a range of coverage options. These options may include a "white glove" service, where the manufacturer manages the repair process with minimal down-time, or a basic warranty, where you would need to pack and ship the screen to the manufacturer and wait for a replacement. For the warranty, you will be quoted between $400 and $1000 per screen, depending on the screen size, the number of years and what it covers. 

4. The content is where the greatest possibilities exist. Dynamic content is really the only reason to invest in a digital drive-thru. Without a creative and ever-evolving content program, digital screens are little more than bright signs.

Consider several elements of content: 
The graphic design is what shows off who you are as a brand, but it must be more than a pretty picture or a list of menu items. Graphic design agencies charge at least $100 - $150 per hour, but the skills that make a good graphic artist don't always incorporate what is necessary in menu board design. In addition to being esthetically pleasing, a good menu display design does two important things:

  • It tells your brand story.
  • It draws the customers' eyes to the items you most want to sell, either the items that define you or the items that you make the most money on.

  • Content management software controls what content is playing. Just like any computer, you need software to tell it what to do. Even though many outdoor screens include SOC (the hardware), they don't include the software that displays your desired content. A good content management software will allow for various types of content - images, videos and streaming feeds. In addition, it should allow for dayparting and advance scheduling. Editable templates are another extremely helpful feature that enable quick price or graphic updates at one or multiple locations with just a few keystrokes.  Some content management software is on a SAAS model, which will run around $200 per year per screen. If you purchase the software outright, it will be about $400-$500 per screen. 
  • Software maintenance and support. This varies depending on the number of screens. The data has to be stored somewhere, and there is some cost associated with taking up space on a server somewhere. And, as with any software, the developers are constantly making tweaks, so it is necessary to keep this up to date. Three things should be understood at the outset regarding software - how much does it cost to host it, how much does it cost to keep it up to date, and can a tech troubleshoot it remotely.  These might show up as a single package or as individual line items. It is usually charged per screen, because each screen requires a unique license and each is, in effect, a distinct unit. The software license will likely be billed annually at around $400 per screen and remote support may add $100-$200 per screen.
  • Order confirmation software that integrates with the POS. There is significant setup work to integrate the POS with the digital displays to show customers exactly what you understand their order to be. The upfront cost may seem high - depending on the POS it could start at around $1,500, but considering the benefits - greater customer satisfaction and fewer mistakes -  it is well worth it. 

Every situation is unique. Even brands that have strict franchise guidelines find that no location is the same due to the real estate, local regulations, weather, and any number of other variables. In addition to the above, there are a few other considerations that may be important to you:

  • Who is actually going to do the work of updating the content? If you plan on managing it yourself, make sure you are properly trained. If you need professional help managing the content, expect the rate to be in the neighborhood of $100 per hour. The amount of time it takes to update content depends greatly on how the menu is set up and what you are trying to accomplish. Updates can take from a few minutes to several hours. 
  • Do you have graphic designers on staff who can create a menu design or enhance the one I already have?
  • Does the board require an internet connection?
  • What does the IT department need to know to make this work?
  • What is the life expectancy of the screens?
  • Is the system UL listed?
  • Can the frame of the menu board be painted in my brand colors?
  • Will the color of the enclosure or the graphics fade over time?
  • Is the wind load rating of the enclosure?

In conclusion, a digital drive-thru menu board can be a significant investment for any business. However, the benefits of the system make it well worth the cost. If you're considering a digital drive-thru menu board for your restaurant, contact The Howard Company to discuss your needs and get an estimate for the cost of the system. Our team of experts will be happy to help you find the right solution for your business.