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Independent restaurants neglect web, mobile

Survey finds many lack online presence

The independently owned restaurant may have chefs who know everything about food and can craft the perfect menu. But many do a poor job of using the Web to showcase their delectables.

A new survey of the industry found that half of independently-owned restaurants do not even have a website, and even fewer use mobile sites or social media to let patrons view a menu online, according Restaurant Sciences, a consulting group based in Newton.

Meanwhile chain restaurants led independents in almost every aspect of Web presence, including mobile versions of their websites and the use of social media outlets like Facebook. Some 98 percent of chains have menus on their websites patrons can browse, compared to just 40 percent of independents.

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“The numbers show how far independents have fallen online in almost every respect in the days when online is mattering even more,’’ said Chuck Ellis, president of Restaurant Sciences, which analyzed the online presence of both independently owned and chain restaurants.

Restaurant patrons increasingly use websites and mobile apps to make their dinner decisions; more than half of consumers typically check a restaurant’s website before dining, according to a National Restaurant Association survey released last month. By not even having a basic home on the Web, Ellis said, restaurants are missing opportunities from patrons who use search engines such as Google and Bing to find places to eat.

“You have to throw up even a one-page website,’’ he said. “So much of the Web feeds off of that.’’

Mobile-friendly features are even more scarce on the independent restaurant scene; just 4 percent of independents have a mobile version of their websites, for example. One is La Morra, an Italian restaurant in Brookline, which just launched its mobile Web home.

“Now if you go on our website with a mobile phone, it’s really easy to navigate,’’ said co-owner Jen Ziskin. She has also become savvy about using social media outlets, for example, interacting with customers personally on Twitter and Facebook.

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“On a slower night, I might post something and say ‘Drop by the bar and say hi,’ ’’ Ziskin said. “People will come up to me and say, ‘We saw you were working tonight.’ ’’

Twitter is the one tool independent restaurants are using to some effect. While many more chains have a Twitter account, the survey found that those independent restaurants that are on Twitter have 10 times as many followers.

Ellis said independent restaurants can take the upper hand on the personalized interactions and connections they can make with patrons over Twitter.

“Twitter is much more of a one-on-one form of communication,’’ he said. “It’s a way to send a message directly to a restaurant owner.’’

Meanwhile, some chains are even creating their own mobile apps just for their restaurants, said Steve Signoff, chief executive of MacroSolve, a mobile technology company.

“Apps actually extend beyond where traditional media can go because they become part of the customer experience,’’ he said. “We’re seeing the chains make the investment.’’

Independent restaurants don’t necessarily need the resources of the chains to build a good online presence. At La Morra, Ziskin treats her webmaster to a good meal in exchange for web development work. Low cost Web hosting companies offer affordable options for creating websites, and there are even free services such as Google Places and Bing Local listings, as well as using Facebook.

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But more important than money is time: restaurateurs need to make sure their websites and social media tools are actually engaging customers, said Dan Green, president of The Green Internet Group, which caters to the restaurant sector.

“You can do a website pretty inexpensively,’’ he said. “But it takes some investment to have one with a good message. It takes a little bit of thought. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear what your customers want.’’


Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.