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Groove Commerce
Design 1, 2, 3: Restaurants Sacrifice Usability for the “Atmosphere”

Wow, I can’t believe April is almost over. Things have been moving right along here at Groove, but I’m sneaking in some time to write this month’s Design 1, 2, 3 for all my faithful readers (the six of you. Ha.) With all this good stuff going on—new clients, site launches, a move into Baltimore’s ETC building, and a three year anniversary coming up—Groove has a few things to celebrate. This got me on a kick of checking out a lot of Baltimore’s restaurant websites. And there were many an error on these sites—so much that I’m not sticking to just three quick fixes, but giving you five this month!

1. Provide All the Information
I am impressed by how many websites don’t provide their menus or hours online. Checking a menu or checking the restaurant’s hours are the number one and two reasons why people visit a restaurant website. Oh, you managed to have a professional photographer take photos, upload them to the site, and write captions, but you can’t tell me if you’re open past 10pm on a Thursday night? Sure, I might call you to find out your hours, but not if I have a second or third choice for dinner whose websites I can skip on over to. And who really calls to ask about the menu? Do you really want your staff occupied taking these phone calls?

The point of your website is to give potential diners information. Yes, photos, history of the business and chef, etc. is all pertinent information, but it’s second tier when compared to the menu and the restaurant's hours (and location). Don’t forgot to include this information, and don’t forget to make it easily accessible—hours on the homepage, and a link to the menu on the homepage. And if you must use a PDF for your menu--alert the visitor. Opening a PDF can crash browsers on older computers, and there's nothing more frustrating than to click on a link and have a browser crash (a good reason to avoid PDF menus all together.)

2. Be Relevant
If there’s one thing the internet is good for, it’s up-to-the-minute updates on just about everything. This is why it is a cardinal sin to have a menu online that’s not in season. Okay, your menu changes daily, but you don’t have the time update the website daily, that’s forgivable. Just make a note that says, “Our menu changes daily, here is a sample of our typical menu. Please call us if you have any questions.” And don’t forget to date the menu with at least the season or the month. Don’t think because it’s not labeled, your visitor won’t know it’s old.

It’s nearly May, and on a nice day it’s almost 80 degrees F, I don’t want to be reading about pumpkin gnocchi in some heavy, cream sauce. Every chef and restaurateur spends hours, days planning a menu. Don’t let your menu do a disservice to your business online. Update it at least seasonally or whenever any major change takes place – including any change in price! No diner appreciates that little surprise, and it could even be viewed legally as false advertising.

3. Build Your Brand
Some restaurant websites go off the deep end when it comes to recreating the restaurant’s atmosphere online. While other restaurant websites look as though the owner’s nephew hacked together something in Microsoft Office. A restaurant website should absolutely reflect its company and branding through and through. And that usually means having it professionally designed. Do you want the owner’s nephew making your dinner? Do you want your online visitor to think he did? A fine dining establishment should have a refined and sophisticated website design. Even a low-key bar can create a cool web presence with a grunge design. The internet is your opportunity to reach an audience who might not normally step foot in your restaurant.

I’ve visited many restaurant websites, and granted I haven’t visited them all in real life, but at least I have noticed them. They are present in the back of my head as potential places to go for certain occasions. Or when someone else mentions how good the restaurant was, I can reply how good (or bad!) their website is! Your online presence stretches much further than just your patrons. Make sure it’s a positive one.

4. Keep Distractions Minimal
Oh the music. Restaurant websites love music and they love Flash. I like to think that when I walk into a restaurant your hostess isn’t going to scream at me. That’s essentially the equivalent of playing music when a site loads when I haven’t requested that music start playing. If you absolutely MUST have music on your restaurant site follow these rules:

    1. 1. Don’t auto-play. Let the visitor choose to turn it on.
      2. If you ignore rule #1 and choose to auto-play, fine—but a pause/stop button better be located in a very visible spot.
      3. Choose your music carefully.

Short music clips or sounds work much better than full songs on repeat. Eventually, what was a pleasant surprise (hopefully) becomes tiresome to the user as they browse your site for what they’re really looking for—information. Woodberry Kitchen is a site that chooses to play background sounds/music. I think the site would be lovely without it, but they chose smartly using background music - just as it would be in real life - to enhance not overshadow the website.

5. You Must Socialize
You’d have to be living under a rock to not realize that there is a food revolution going on in America. From eating healthier to eating local, from dressing up the simplest foods to simplifying the most expensive, from picking out a farm to picking a chemical reaction, from televisions shows to movies to books, the average American restaurant diner loves food. And not just the food itself but everything that it means. And almost more than anything, food represents coming together, socializing. If it’s appropriate to your brand (and it probably is) you need to be interacting with your loyal diners and potential diners online. You have to constantly remind them of your existence.

Through e-mail lists, Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and Yelp, you should be telling your customers about happy hour specials, giving loyal customers discounts and generally creating buzz about your food! Not to mention it’s an excellent way to monitor the good and the bad about your restaurant. I’ve tweeted about how much I enjoyed my entree at a certain restaurant during Baltimore’s restaurant week (as well as the great service I got!), I’ve also tweeted how I wish restaurants would have more/better vegetarian options. That was a direct opportunity for a watchful business to tweet me directly and suggest their vegetarian dishes. The other great thing about all this online socializing? Virtually all of it is available for free.

I hope this helps you avoid some potential pitfalls when creating a restaurant website. These are basic, but can easily get overlooked when the owner wants more “wow” factor or when the owner doesn’t give the site a second thought. Your restaurant website is a powerful tool to keep your afloat in any economy. Use it!

Mentioned in this post:
Meli : Provide All the Information
Joe Squared : Be Relevant
Clementines : Build Your Brand
Talara : Keep Distractions Minimal
Woodberry Kitchen : Keep Distractions Minimal
Miss Shirley's : You Must Socialize