The COVID-19 pandemic has all but eliminated the role of communal menus in restaurants. Here are four menu alternatives for restaurants looking to safely reopen.

Menus are often the most germ-riddled part of an entire restaurant, according to WebMD. Customers come in, pick them up, handle them, pass them around, and leave them for the next patron. For restaurants looking to reopen, menu safety will be a top priority, and many state governments have zeroed in on it as a necessity. 

In light of this, restaurants need to rethink their menus. The days of passing around a paper menu are over, and restaurants need to adapt. Here are new ways restaurants can approach their menu to help keep their customers and employees safe.

Disposable menus
Gov. Gavin Newsom cautioned that disposable menus may be the new norm for California restaurants. The state of Georgia has also “strongly encouraged” restaurants to recycle their menus after every customer to ensure there’s no point of contact between customers. Moving forward, paper menus will be treated like leftover food, cleared and disposed of before the next patron sits down.

Single-use menus can be ordered in high volumes and recycled after each use. Since disposable menus are limited to a single sheet, restaurants may need to adapt their menu to fit in the limited space.

Single-use menus are the safest option for restaurants, but they come with three major downsides. One, printing costs can quickly mount. Two, restaurants will need to manage their menu count like they would any food inventory. And three, disposable menus carry an environmental cost since they can only be used once. 

Laminated menus
Restaurants have been moving away from laminated menus for years, mainly because of concerns about sanitation. While flu and cold pathogens do in fact live longer on plastic than on paper, plastic menus can be cleaned. Paper menus need to be disposed of because they can’t be washed and disinfected. The plastic film on a laminated menu can safely be reused if proper sanitation procedures are executed between customers. 

The CDC has shown that both mild detergents and common disinfectants work to sanitize menus, so restaurants can either wash the menus with soapy water or wipe them clean with a disinfectant. Either way, they can be safely recirculated without the waste of having to dispose of them after each customer.

Here are some best practices for cleaning laminated menus:

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect after each use.
  • Use a soft cloth without abrasions
  • Allow the menu to fully dry
  • Keep menus organized into “used” and “clean” stacks
  • Avoid harsh cleaning chemicals like bleach
  • Don’t fully submerge the menu underwater
  • Avoid putting menus through the dishwasher

Chalkboard, large signage or A-frame menus
Some restaurants are doing away with the idea of individual menus entirely, replacing them with large communal ones that can be viewed from afar. These menus generally come in three types: chalkboard, large signage, or A-frame. These are great because they can be posted in a high-traffic area, like behind your counter or at the center of your dining area, and customers can view them without having to physically touch them like they would a normal menu. That way no germs are passed between customers via the menu surface

The drawback to these menus is that they can be expensive to produce, and unless you’re working with a chalkboard one, you can’t easily make changes to your menu. Any edits or item updates will either require a whole new sign, or you’ll have to make sloppy alterations with a Sharpie.

Digital menus
Like most industries, restaurants are feeling the pull toward the digital realm. Customers increasingly interact with their favorite restaurants through their mobile devices, either by delivery apps, websites, or social media. The extended closure of dine-in services will only exacerbate this trend as consumers grow more accustomed to online ordering and food delivery.

In order to minimize contact touchpoints, more restaurants will keep their menus completely digital. Many already used digital menus in the form of large-screen displays behind the bar or counter. They require no physical contact, and they can be updated in a second without the hassle of having to print new menus.

Not all restaurants can afford large-scale screens, though, and for others, a bulky display would not fit the rest of the restaurant’s aesthetic. Some restaurants will start relying on the customer to access the menu via their own phone. Cell phones are already being used to remove points of contact during the checkout process. Restaurant owners and managers will start using them in a similar fashion to eliminate the need for physical, communal menus.

The author, Mark Plumlee, works as Sr. Copywriter for MustHaveMenus.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)