Sunday, May 20, 2007

Talking menus could improve the dining experience for the visually impaired


Susan Perry, founder of the firm that produces Menus That Talk, holds one of her menus.

The light-bulb moment came over lunch and laughs last summer at the Olive Garden in West Miami as Susan Perry struggled to read the menu to her visually impaired niece.

Jessica MacWithey, 24, has macular degeneration, Perry, 50, had forgotten her reading glasses, and the blind-leading-the-blind scenario cracked them up.

''I joked that we needed a braille menu,'' Perry says. 'But Jessica informed me that most legally blind people don't read braille. Then I thought, `Wow, what we need is something that speaks.' ''
Less than a year later, Perry is heading to Chicago to launch her invention, Menus That Talk, at this weekend's National Restaurant Association show.

Perry says she's invested $250,000 into the project and bets she can turn a profit before the year is out.

Her aim is to convince some of the nearly one million U.S. restaurants -- roughly a third are chains -- to buy talking menus to serve visually impaired Americans.

''It helps people do easily what we take for granted,'' Perry says in her Kendall office, skimming her fingers over the hand-held device, which could be mistaken for an oversized Game Boy. Buttons correspond to food categories -- burgers, salads, desserts, etc.

She pushes ''Appetizers'' and a pleasant female voice begins, ``Thai Phoon Shrimp. Tender, crispy shrimp with a sweet and spicy chile sauce, $7.99.''

Press the ''español'' button, and appetizers become aperitivos, expanding the target market to language-limited as well as visually impaired diners.

''Two of my daughters married Cubans,'' Perry says. ``Whenever we went out to eat with the whole family, there was always someone who had trouble ordering.''


Menus That Talk ( has no signed contracts, but is generating interest. A number of purchasing managers have promised to stop by the booth at the show, Perry says.
It would cost a restaurant about $4,000 a year, including menu updates and insurance, to purchase five units.

''I predict this is going to be very hot. It's catering to a huge market,'' says Renée Rentmeester, president of Miami's Vision World Foundation and creator of the public television show Cooking Without Looking, noting that an estimated 17 million Americans are visually impaired.

Others are not so sure. Richard Lackey, a veteran restaurant consultant with offices in Palm Beach Garden and London, questions if there are enough visually impaired diners to prompt restaurants to buy the menus.

''At first blush, I would say the jury is certainly out,'' Lackey says. ``But if they are able to sell to a chain like T.G.I. Friday's or Chili's then they will automatically create a home run for themselves, because other chains won't be one-upped or appear to not be socially conscious.''

Perry has models for Outback (with Australian announcer), Hard Rock Cafe (Elvis impersonator) and Olive Garden (you guessed it, Italian accent) to show off in Chicago.

''We tried to have some fun with it,'' she says. ``You go to a restaurant to be entertained and relax.''


She developed the device with friend Richard Herbst, whose Kansas company, Control Vision, manufactures GPS for small airplanes. The talking menus will be tailor-made for each restaurant, which can program its own voice or leave it to the professionals.

Menu changes won't be a problem.

''The whole updating process takes about 24 hours,'' says Perry. ''A voice actor e-mails an MP3 file of the recording, which we download to a data key'' that's sent to the restaurant and slipped into the machine.

Perry's niece, for one, is stoked.

''You want to eat something new and hear the description, but having someone always read to you is embarrassing,'' says MacWithey, who works with her aunt. ``I always ended up with something simple that every place had -- like grilled cheese, soup or salad.''

Another ingenious feature for the whole dining party is a service light that blinks to summon the waiter. About time, no?

''I'm actually surprised this hadn't been invented yet,'' Perry says. 'But it wasn't so long ago that we were dragging around suitcases in airports. One day someone said, `Let's put on wheels.' Ideas come to you, and you have to run with them.''


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