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Top Ten List: How to Create a Great Website For Your Restaurant

A Food Channel How To

Want a great restaurant website? Read on . . .

In a world of stacked food, min-desserts, and appetizers bigger than your meal, it’s easy to see why restaurateurs have gone over-the-top with their websites, too. Somehow we think that the big impact is made from something flashy, animated and musical.

But, really, all we’re looking for is what time you open and if we can afford to pick up the check.

The world of food has recently started to pay attention to its websites, an area long ignored by operators who were “too busy” to develop websites. I can’t tell you how many times a restaurant chef has told me, “I’m cooking, not playing with a keyboard. Tell them to get a life.”

These chefs, by the way, are the one who are now struggling to keep their doors open. Yes, in a social media world, it's the ones who have reached out online who are able to welcome customers to their physical place of business. One of the best examples is Rick Bayless, a noted restaurateur and cookbook author who has three restaurants on the same corner in Chicago, and who regularly Tweets in order to engage with his followers. He doesn’t just push information out, either—he answers questions, provides information, and creates goodwill for his business.

With that in mind, here’s a list of tips for restaurants who need to build or overhaul their websites. It’s not a bad list for any business, as a matter of fact.

  1. Flash is dead. Adobe has announced that it will stop developing Flash for mobile browsers. This effectively means Flash on websites is useless. Some have been aware of problems with Flash for years—there was a reason it was banned from some companies in town, whose employees couldn’t get Flash-based sites to play through the company system. But now it’s official, and instead of bemoaning how difficult it will be to animate some moving parts, move on. Truth be told, we hit the X in the right hand corner to get out of that flashy intro, anyway.
  2. Face the fact that a website is a living organism that needs a wardrobe update as frequently as most teenage girls. New technology on the backend, new design on the front end—both need to be addressed at least every six months. A website is no longer something you can build and forget about. It needs to breath and keep up with current technology.
  3. Build with user experience in mind – they want times you are open, approximate costs, and idea of the menu, a way to make a reservation, and a coupon. They don’t care about music, animation, or cartoons. Think through your main navigation and decide if you want to put job opportunities on your site, or if you want to stick with the basic who, what, when and where. A website has to be fed—for foodchannel.com, we actually have a schedule for what we call “feeding the beast.” It’s a numbers game that is every bit as important as our editorial calendar. So plan out your content and your schedule for updates and stick to it.
  4. Build to be found. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a specialized skill you may want to hire out but it’s worth the minimal investment to ensure your tags are correct and that you are getting picked up by the search engines.
  5. Social media has to be built into your website. Show your Facebook fans, using the easy icon Facebook provides. Link to your Twitter feed. Incorporate YouTube videos. Give a special discount to those who tag you on Foursquare. Allow comments on your site, and respond to them. It’s no different than answering your phone or your mail, and it’s actually much easier once you get into a routine. Be brave and link to Yelp or other ratings site. They have all kinds of business development tips that can help you develop your social media strategy.
  6. Make your website highly visual, with minimal text. People want to see the food as well as get a glimpse of the ambiance, so invest in photos that are an accurate representation. In other words, avoid studio shots or highly styled food photography. Real doesn’t have to mean sloppy, so look carefully for the right photographer to fit your style. Consider a photo gallery; you can easily do one that is user generated if you build your site with that in mind, and it helps people share their positive experiences.
  7. Make sure your information is accurate. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve checked hours on a website, gone to the restaurant, and found they were closed for renovation, or had changed their holiday schedule, or had eliminated their early bird special. Nothing says, “We don’t want your business” more than inaccuracies in information. And put holiday specials up well in advance of the holiday—then take them off immediately after the holiday. Also, if you are going to offer coupons or promotions, make sure your staff is aware of how to redeem them, particularly if you are going to allow a mobile phone display of your coupon. And put dietary benefits in a visible position, particularly if you offer a gluten free or low salt selection. It’s what a lot of people are checking restaurant websites for these days.
  8. Your website is a reflection of your restaurant – make it hospitable, with a message from the manager, an easy way to contact you, and an FAQ. If you offer a phone number, then make sure it is answered. If you offer an email address, make sure it is checked hourly. If you are going to have a Facebook page, check it for messages. Put contact information in a footer so that it is on every page of the site.
  9. Think mobile – don’t give me a pdf to download on my phone. Small businesses may not want to invest in a full app, but a site can be built with mobile functions in mind, so be sure to ask your developer about it. In the same way, use GPS and Google maps so that people can find you—give them an easy way to link to directions.
  10. Don’t get sucked into a website that doesn’t give you a unique URL. There’s a great restaurant in Las Vegas I can never find online because they let their website reside on a joint site and didn’t build something distinct to them. Your URL should be as close to your name as possible.

Your website is a 24/7 sales tool for you, so make sure it reflects your brand, who you are, and what you offer. Show your menu, any specials or promotions, an address with a link to Google maps, hours of operation, parking information, a place for questions to be answered, and an online reservation system that actually works—whether you operate it or you connect with a site such as OpenTable.com. Avoid getting caught up in anything that will create an expectation you can’t deliver on in person—and, just as importantly, don’t have a website so poor that people won’t know how good you are.