Whether on a vacation, tired after a long day of work or simply looking for a special place to go on “date night,” consumers are always looking for the next great restaurant to satisfy their hunger pangs or entertainment cravings. When those pangs and cravings emerge, these days they’re likely to go online. But if they come to your website, will it provide them with the information they’re looking for to make a decision or reservation? We sat down with Jay Schwartz, founder and Chief Creative Officer of IdeaWork Studios, to talk about restaurant website design and how it can turn online traffic into paying customers. Through his work, he’s discovered some “must do’s” and best practices that help ensure restaurants build the best website possible.
YR: Why is it important for a restaurant to have a good website?
Jay: Depending on the restaurant, it may not be important at all. If a restaurant is competing in a specific market, however, a well-designed and well thought-out online presence is essential. Potential guests use the web as their primary decision-making tool, even surpassing word of mouth.
YR: In what ways is a restaurant website responsible for conveying the restaurant experience and how challenging is that to accomplish?
Jay: The website should be a restaurant’s calling card—the restaurateur should never have to apologize for the state of their site. If a restaurant’s site is clean, easy to use, and well designed, it will inform the guest that the restaurant notices details and cares about how it looks and is perceived. When I design a new online presence for a restaurant, I make sure to visit the location, experience the food and ambience, and then try to capture that experience and convey it visually online. A fine dining restaurant’s site should look and feel very different from that of a neighborhood bistro: the interiors aren’t the same, the food isn’t the same, the service isn’t the same, and the web presence should be different—unique and authentic.
YR: During your experiences, you’ve branded restaurants from top to bottom, and also built websites for restaurants with existing brands. What are the challenges/benefits of starting from scratch versus working with an existing brand?
Jay: When I work with an existing brand the framework exists. There’s already a lexicon to work from—the style of food, the color of the walls, the flatware… all these elements factor into the tools I use to convey the experience. Starting from scratch is both easier and more challenging; it’s a lot more work because all of those elements don’t yet exist, but I get to have a voice in how they turn out. There can be more opportunities to convey the brand personality through collateral. Working with an established brand can be more challenging to inject new or updated visual elements or style because the restaurant has been running for a while. Change can be scary for some. Challenges with starting a new brand are primarily the challenges related to trying to hit a moving target—opening a restaurant is a fluid process and you can’t be too set in one direction or you’re bound for disappointment.
YR: What are the top 3 things every restaurant website should include?
- Hours of operation (up-to-date)
- An easy way to make a reservation
- Address and phone number
YR: How can good website design drive more customers to a restaurant? (Or conversely, drive people away?)
Jay: A good website will convey the experience of “being there” to a potential guest and make them want to reserve a table. Good restaurant website design is about ease of use and telling the story through visuals. I’ve seen too many over-designed sites and sites that try to be trendy without forethought. A warm bistro or gastropub shouldn’t be talked into a modernist looking site—it doesn’t fit. Just because a designer wants to try the latest trend doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Restaurant owners should make sure their marketing partner is the right fit.
YR: What is the most common mistake you see restaurants make on their website?
Jay: There are many. The two most common are:
- Using bad photos. Food photography is a niche unto itself and is an art. Food photography is not an area to cut corners.
- High-end restaurants using template websites. Dinner for 2 is $1000 and you handle 2.5 turns per service. You should be spending more than $9/month on a unique online presence.
YR: How often should a restaurant update their website?
Jay: The overall look and feel should not need to be updated often. Content, however, should be kept accurate and up-to- date. Menus need to be updated online whenever they’re updated in the restaurant. I’ve often chosen to eat at a different restaurant when the one I wanted to visit didn’t have a current menu online.