Why restaurant websites are the worst

It’s not about the platforms. It’s about people.

This isn’t the first tweet in history to complain about restaurant websites. Just search ‘restaurant websites suck’ on Twitter search and you’ll find lots of rants about them.

Restaurants are difficult to run. The challenges are enormous and in many cases, you’re overworked and margins are thin. A great website user experience with basic information like hours, address and a phone number can be a small but huge difference. Menus? Even better.

The case against bespoke content management systems

If you don’t have users with the time to manage their own content, you’re going to run into the same problems regardless of what tool they’re using.

I’ve written about the death of CMS before, so I’ve already shown my hand. I’m adamantly against the proliferation of tools that lock consumers within a platform they’re beholden to, when all they really want is a headless tool that lets them connect third party tools.

Many have Yelp pages, Open Table for reservations, Seamless or Grubhub for online ordering and of course, a Facebook page and maybe even a Twitter account. Bentobox and Sitewrench are attempting to make fetch happen with custom restaurant websites via a platform, but the real question is, “Who is your audience in this scenario?”

Probably mom & pop restaurants or regional chains. Perhaps the platform ends up being good enough to convince an owner with a group of restaurants to connect them, but you’re not creating a SaaS model of restaurant websites, you’re creating a design agency that owns its first product. It’s very hands-on, takes a lot of hand holding and your best case scenario is Squarespace for a very specific set of users.

The problem isn’t a lack of easy-to-use tools. Tumblr is easy. Wordpress is easy once someone gets it installed for them. Talk to any business owner in your downtown and inevitably someone will have a story about the person they paid to make them a website who took them to the cleaners for several thousand dollars, under delivered and over-performed.

It’s not that restaurants aren’t a market worth serving, it’s that websites are not really the best tool for them in a 21st century, on-demand economy when there are far better ways for them to reach their audiences quickly.

The problem restaurant owners have is there are just so many other priorities to focus on, that have a much bigger impact on the customer experience than their websites. It makes it a lot easier to ignore and frankly, there’s just not enough time for overworked restaurant owners to focus on another thing that they don’t know enough about.

Unlike taxes, plumbing or architecture, there needs to be a real ROI — show me an empty restaurant turned full because of a website revamp — and you’ll be able to tell a better story.

Even with those stories, you’re talking about a diverse array of restaurants, a legion of owners with different needs, issues, challenges and desires. Narrowing your base can make a product easier to target and perhaps people will self-identify.

People don’t decide where to eat based on a website

Photo by: Shanice Garcia

The UX of the website isn’t what makes people determine to recommend a place to their friends or become loyal. Think of your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant in some outpost city that only locals know about. It might not look like much on the outside, but you’ll eat really well.

If a bad website is the reason a restaurant closes, they were probably doomed before they started. Independent hotel websites are also terrible and there are lots of them. But at the end of the day, people have a need to sleep somewhere at a price point that they can afford. Food is no different.

So sure, restaurant websites are terrible and it’d be great if there were a way to unify and improve the experience across the board. I think it’s a worthy cause, but the best way to do it is to understand the barriers and challenges that restaurant owners and managers face with their existing websites.

Those challenges exist across the board in other environments that attempt to manage content at scale. Restaurants are smaller, it should seem easier. It’s just more difficult to adopt a new workflow when Facebook works so easy, when you’ve trained your staff to tweet specials or when Instagram can allow you to show visually how great your product is.