For Ashland entrepreneur, success is on the menu

One good idea often begets another. In the case of Ashland entrepreneur Jim Williams, his highly successful church worship media provider Letters & Arts turned into a gateway for an even larger enterprise.

MustHaveMenus was incubated within Letters & Arts for four years until Williams spun it off in 2011 with the help of a million dollars from angel investors.

Today, the online menu provider has 7,000 clients who operate 15,000 restaurants in virtually every state, as well as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Williams anticipates revenue of $1 million in 2013 and he projects $8 million to $10 million in sales in 2015. He thinks he will exceed $30 million within five years.

"The big picture dawned on us in 2010," Williams said. "Instead of simply offering a menu template, we saw a much bigger opportunity by supporting client data and offering other services."

Clients, who pay $15 per month, range from new mom-and-pop startups to decades-old ventures with several million dollars in annual sales. Establishments run the gamut from cafes and bars to fine dining.

While plenty of restaurants post menus on Web pages, few had the ability to tie hard-copy graphic components and Internet capability together.

"We're at an intersection of major trends in technology and the awareness of restaurants realizing technology has the ability to help them," Williams said. "A few years ago, this type of solution didn't exist and the types that did were very expensive and required time. Every restaurant needs a menu, but we're the only one that allows them to create, design and print menus. Others will allow online distribution, publishing on websites, Facebook and mobile apps, but we let customers have both traditional menus and be in the digital realm."

The business began with Letters & Arts — a firm with $3 million annual revenues — selling menu graphics to restaurants.

"Once we saw the graphics were selling, we added a menu template," Williams said. "Once we had a couple thousand menu templates, we thought it was time to spin out the company. It gave us a chance to focus on one product and talk to our audience without being distracted by other things."

The company employs 10 people directly and has 10 contract employees. Engineers make up a third of the staff, a third are in marketing, and a third handle production — designing, fixing and customizing menus.

He said the company's penetration mirrors population distribution. California, New York and Texas are its biggest markets.

"The New York City metro area is our No. 1 market, with Chicago, San Francisco and Houston being big," Williams said.

Digging down to the level of mom-and-pop operations was a key element, because small operations most likely couldn't afford hundreds or thousands of dollars for viable websites.

"We make the menu process much easier for the restaurant," Williams said. "Before, the technology required them to have many hands in the pot in terms of menu design, updating, printing — and for that matter deciding who stores the menu and where."

Now, menus are kept in one place, on the Web, or in present parlance "the cloud."

"I refrain from using that term (cloud)," Williams admitted. "It's a Silicon Valley buzz word. But, yeah, we store menus in the cloud and manage from the cloud so clients don't have to keep files."

Jeanie Inman, owner of the Mustard Seed Cafe in Jacksonville, found MustHaveMenus online two years ago.

She has now changed her menu for a third time.

"I have skill in desktop publishing, but I didn't have time to deal with it," Inman said.

At first she was looking for logos, but she has since expanded her use of the site.

"The templates were really strong, and I could make my own menu easily," Inman said. "There is enough room for creativity, but not enough to mess things up very badly. We have a good following on Facebook, and with a click of a button, I can put a new menu on Facebook."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at Edge.

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