Posted in Design on Nov 28th, 2013
I’ve been designing and managing the Ethan Stowell Restaurant brand for several years now. Logos, menus, photographs and the all important website. We started talking about a website redesign well over a year ago. I had designed the first Ethan Stowell Restaurants website back in 2009 when there were only four restaurants—and Union was still one of them. As the company began to grow the website quickly ran out of real estate. It wasn’t really designed with enough scalability. And more importantly, it wasn’t designed with mobile in mind—or tablets for that matter. We needed something flexible, extensible and a little more grown-up as the ESR empire steps into maturity.
Of course, right away we knew we wanted a responsive design. Sadly, I’m still seeing restaurants—and even former clients—get talked into these cheap (or in some cases free) “mobile websites” that essentially redirect mobile and tablet traffic away from the main website to a stand-alone, third-party mobile site with a logo slapped on the top and a row of buttons to choose from. This is a terrible solution for a variety of reasons. First, you are now responsible for managing content on two different sites and you are redirecting your own valuable traffic (and therefore your Google ranking) to a third party business. Second, you are no longer in charge of your own brand. A logo on the top of the page is not the brand—the user experience is—and you just outsourced that. If you want to leave your brand up to a company that isn’t even charging you money, you should be very worried. What is their motivation? Selling ads? Booking reservations? Likely, all of the above.
What you really want is a responsive website. This is a site that can tailor both content and design to the device it’s being viewed on. It’s a single website but it’s flexible enough to increase font size and narrow focus on a smaller iPhone for readability, or serve up giant photo slideshows on a larger desktop. It’s a lot more work on the designer’s part (mine) as we are essentially designing 3 or 4 different sites with various incremental changes built into a single entity. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very worth it.
For this project, I once again brought in my good pal and web developer Ryan Scherler. Ryan is really doing some amazing things on the backend of a website these days. It’s stuff the casual viewer might not notice directly, but believe me, the reason the site works so well is all because of Ryan. Every concept I came up with during the design phase he executed brilliantly. Back in the day, I used to write all of my own code and I even dabbled in various scripting languages and bit of PHP (and I still can for the most part). But, I can honestly say that I am now officially a “retired web developer”. Ryan is so much quicker and smarter than I ever was, and there is no good reason for me to muck around in the bits and pieces anymore. I can now focus all of my energy on design and content where I belong. (Life lesson: know when it’s time to hang up certain tools and let people that are better than you take the lead.)
And speaking of content, this is really where the new ESR website really shines in my mind. Trying to manage a single website with ten or more discrete restaurant locations can be tricky business. We wanted to make the information simple, comprehensive, and easily accessible with a minimum of clicks. Each location gets its own page and thats where everything for that restaurant lives: hours, menus, photos, phone numbers, reservation links, etc.. We siloed this information on purpose, so that users needed to commit to a location before we would offer all the details—this is to avoid visitors making a reservation at the wrong location or reading the menu for the wrong restaurant. On the home page you simply get big, blocky, branded squares with names and phone numbers. I envisioned a couple in the back of a cab wanting to call a restaurant if they were running late, so the phone number of each location is accessible from the home page. If you are on you phone, you click it to call. Simple. The modular design allows for the site to easily scale to the device and more importantly accommodate new restaurants as they arrive (these days that can be quicker than I can keep up.)
The other big feature was an event calendar. As the company has grown, so has its involvement in the community, and ESR hosts charity cook-offs, Sunday Feasts, pizza tossing contests and all sorts of special events. So Ryan and I came up with a custom event calendar that is built into the content management system. On Ryan’s recommendation, we’re using ProcessWire as a CMS base for the site and it’s been a really great tool. We can log in and set up events in just a couple of minutes and the postings cycle through the website and retire themselves automatically when they expire. The open nature of ProcessWire was really perfect for this kind of stuff. We also extended it to a job board and a simple drag-and-drop menu editor to allow staff daily access for menu updating.
And of course, there’s a giant pile of photographs available on the new website. Everybody loves to look at photos and I’m lucky to be in a position that gives me a lot of direct access to Ethan’s kitchens. We are often shooting for magazines, cookbooks, and events so I’m always there with a camera capturing more and more content for the site. It’s fun work.
All that said, my favorite part of the website is the staff bios. While I’m sure my concept created some anxiety for a few people on staff, everybody stepped up. I worked in restaurants for many years and I met most of the people I know in Seattle (including my design clients) from being in and around restaurants. Restaurants are full of amazing people. Our bio section for the new site highlights chefs and managers and tells the kind of story you don’t normally get to see on a restaurant website—or any website for that manner. Who are the people behind ESR? Where do they come from and what do they like to eat late at night? The bios give us a different slice and remind us that no matter how big a company gets, it’s still made up of small groups of interesting people. And in the end, content is still king.
Visit the new site at ethanstowellrestaurants.com.