The most compelling unified theory on why most restaurant websites are, in fact, pretty bad came during a particularly dire era in web design. Writing in Slate in 2011, Farhad Manjoo, now a columnist at the New York Times, surmised that the crazy sense of bloat that afflicted so many restaurants’ sites owed to the restaurant operators’ innate drive to seem hospitable. As restaurateurs enjoyed designing interior spaces, and menus, and lighting schemes, and playlists, and signage — to say nothing of the food or drink itself — so too did they like to load up their websites with what turned out to be mostly gunk: animations, music no one asked for, and other too-cute touches. “Restaurant sites are the product of restaurant culture,” Manjoo wrote. “These nightmarish websites were spawned by restaurateurs who mistakenly believe they can control the online world the same way they lord over a restaurant.”
If restaurant website design was at least a decade behind the times, then it stands to reason a decade later, things might have improved. And mostly they have! Restaurants tend not to over-engineer their sites quite so much, in part because the rise of smartphones has put a premium on mobile-first (that is, lean) web design. Also, restaurant operators may have gotten the memo. Presenting a website that’s smooth, suave, and respectful of a customer’s need to find the best information in the shortest amount of time simply pays off.
Just ask Kaycee Morin, co-founder of web design company Bay Edge Media. She has designed hundreds of restaurant websites and, as someone who also frequents plenty of eateries herself, knows what works — and what flat-out doesn’t. “A good restaurant website should captivate your audience and be an authority on your brand,” Morin said. “It should always be up-to-date, easy to navigate, fun to explore, and leave your customers enjoying the overall experience.”
In short, your website should reflect many of the same values that your establishment embodies. Here’s how to put that into practice, animations definitely optional. And how to avoid some of the pitfalls that restaurant operators still make as they venture onto the web — high costs included.
The easiest mistake to avoid is clutter. When people are on the hunt for information, don’t offer them a guessing game. Where are you located? What are your hours? Where can someone find your Instagram or TikTok presence? What’s on your menu? What’s your Covid protocol? Do you have a preferred delivery app or provider? Making the simplest information easy to find and up-to-date will take you a long way. “A clear message needs to be established in a matter of seconds,” Morin said. “If your customers are fed bad information from your website, you won’t be feeding them. In more ways than one.”
If you’re building your website on your own, your best bet is to resist doing too much. Don’t go overboard packing in a theme. Don’t overstuff the page with slow-to-load photos or widgets. You have video embedded? That’s dope and all, but does it really need to autoplay with sound? This is a case when you need to ask not just whether you can, but whether you should. Very often the answer on the screen — like the answer on the plate! — is that doing a straightforward job cleanly is what most people appreciate most of the time. “Websites built with the single function of ‘looking pretty’ often turn out to be terrible websites,” Morin said. “The brands we typically see fade out are the ones that try and do too much all at once or try and do everything by themselves.”
Your would-be customers are definitely shopping for you online. They’re sifting through your restaurant’s reviews, your restaurant’s Google Business Profile, your social media, and through your website. All of these digital avenues have their own roles, and shouldn’t simply repeat each other. But crucially, they should all connect, resonate with one another, and tell a consistent story about your establishment. “Now that everyone is focusing on pumping their reviews at all costs it’s more important than ever to have quality branding collateral, and this includes a captivating website, menu, flyers, social posts, etc.,” Morin said. “Consumers are telling us if a restaurant genuinely cares about their own brand image they are very likely putting out a great product — and the customer is right.”
If you need your site fast or your budget is tight, several sites offer you design templates that will get you online in a hurry — and perhaps grow with you, if you decide to DIY it long-term.
The biggest player here is Wix, the king of simple e-commerce integrations and easy-to-update drag-and-drop interfaces. It offers upwards of 60 customizable restaurant-specific design templates. You can opt for the free plan (and its accompanying watermarks) or work from one of four pricing plans, which range from the basic (and likely all you need) $16/month plan to your more comprehensive $50/month.
Even cheaper is Zyro, two plans that top out at less than $5 a month. You get fewer templates, sure, but you do get a logo maker. It also integrates marketing features and review sites such as Google, Yelp, and Trip Advisor.
Sociavore also covers a ton of restaurant needs for $50 a month. It easily integrates with your POS, supports more than 80 third-party payment providers, amps up your SEO, and streamlines marketing. Its websites can handle reservations, contactless ordering, and selling merch and gift cards. You also get a hands-on concierge service, in case you need help getting things off the ground.
While Pop Menu tilts pricier, at $149+ per month, it’s more inclusive. It handles website design, offers an interactive menu for online ordering, front of house operations, delivery and pick up, and provides an automated remarketing system for SMS push notifications, social media, and emails. This may be the choice for the restaurant operator who wants a hub for all things digital.
All of those platforms and digital design solutions have made it easier to build out a decent website on your own. Boom, great, you’re online. It’s a great place to be. But once you have the budget to advance beyond the bare bones, though, you should consider bringing in a pro. Let someone else stress about how to optimize your site for better click-through rates, improve the time spent on page, sharpen the calls to action, make placing orders easier, and build out the architecture and content to boost your visibility on Google. “There is a great quote by Red Adair that said, ‘If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur,’” Morin said. “And that’s so true. The restaurants that go cheap in the beginning to save a couple dollars almost always fade away. Alternatively the companies that invest in their brand are almost exclusively the most successful.”