Just a few years ago, there was barely a need for a bar to have a website. Bars could thrive clandestinely, covertly or via word-of-mouth, beckoning patrons in via a well-lit sign out front or the drifting hum of a noisy room.
As bars remain in flux while the pandemic continues, however, a digital presence has become essential for survival. “Seventy-seven percent of diners visit a restaurant's website before they dine in or order. It’s important to control what they see,” says Krystle Mobayeni, the CEO of website builder BentoBox. But while a website is essential, Death & Co proprietor David Kaplan says, “Building a website can be an intimidating and costly measure, specifically in our industry.”
So where do you start? We rounded up advice from bar owners, branding experts and website designers on building the optimal web presence.
1. Start with the Essentials
Kaplan recommends starting with a website builder. “In our industry specifically, it’s always felt there’s an unnecessary barrier to building a website,” he says. “It seems foreign or complex.” A platform like BentoBox (Kaplan’s favorite), Squarespace or Wix does the legwork for you, for a price.
Once you have a host platform, lay out the essentials. “Bars can benefit from websites in more ways than showing off bartending skills, beautiful interiors or a great cocktail list,” says Stephen White, the founder of design and branding studio Smith Hall. “A website is a great digital landing page, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to answer people’s immediate questions: Where are you located? What are your hours? What’s on the menu? And what’s the vibe of the space?” he says.
Mobayeni says that all of this information should be clearly laid out, not buried deep within the website. “The restaurant address, contact information, online ordering and reservations info should be on the homepage or one click away,” she says.
These days, it’s also a place to provide additional crucial information. “Your website is a way to provide transparency. How are you responding to COVID-19? How are you navigating the current times?” says Kaplan.
A website is also a platform for providing your customers with real-time updates. Kaplan does this via a pop-up on Death & Co’s homepage. “Ours is always getting updated with the state of our in-bar or patio dining, plus our efforts to raise funds,” he says. “It’s a way to convey that crucial messaging without being too overwhelming.” Mobayeni agrees: “It’s essential that the information on the website is accurate and up-to-date, specifically with safety precautions, happy-hour specials, current menus, prices, adjusted hours, safety guidelines, event information (as they come back) and contact information.”
2. Make It Unique
While it’s crucial to provide facts like opening hours, safety protocols, location and example menus, a website should also convey a sense of the bar’s personality. “We approach a website the same way we approach building a bar,” says Kaplan. “We develop a mood board for the look and feel; we have points of reference.” He takes stock of websites he has enjoyed or admired “regardless of whether they’re endemic or nonendemic to our industry,” he says.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned when creating my website is spending the time to write down what you’re looking to achieve from your bar and brand and how you want to communicate that through a website,” says Valentino Longo, the head bartender at Four Seasons at Surf Club in Surfside, Florida, and the founder of the virtual Shoshin Art Club. “When finalizing the Shoshin concept, I knew that video would be an integral part of our web experience, and I had to be sure to find a web platform and design that would showcase all our videos beautifully.”
“You want to make content that showcases not only what your bar is like and how you make drinks but why you own the bar in the first place,” says White. “The best thing you can do is identify those unique traits and find interesting ways to highlight that type of information on your site. Show yourself some love! Just a reminder: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
3. Consider Your Brand
One of the fastest routes to making a cohesive website is having unified branding. Kaplan suggests a consistent font and logo. Mobayeni agrees: “It’s all about brand consistency—translating physical menus to online menus, ensuring consistent fonts and a clear tone of voice. An online experience really comes to life with a unique design and branding that represents the experience and vibe of the bar.”
This can all sound pricey, but Longo says it's a cost that will pay off in dividends. “Spend the money on a good web developer who has branding experience,” he says. “I know we bartenders like to do everything ourselves, and saving money is more important than ever. Even though building websites is an easier process than ever thanks to sites like Squarespace and BentoBox, it’s important to invest in a solid web designer. You want this person to be a true partner that’s an extension of your team so they can help bring your vision to life.” Platforms like BentoBox, Squarespace, Wix and Wordpress also offer premade designs for more affordable prices.
Once you have the basics of your website down, experts say the devil is in the details. One of Mobayeni’s biggest no-nos is uploading a menu in PDF format. “PDF menus are slow to load, particularly on mobile devices, and are challenging to update,” she says. “Plus, they lead to poor SEO results. Text-based menus are quicker to load and easier to read on mobile and allow the bar to easily update them without a designer.”
While you can upload a copy of your menu, White suggests furthering this and highlighting what makes your bar unique. “What makes your menu special or differentiates you from the other bars?” he says. “Is it the ingredients you use? Is it that you have 118 cocktails on the menu? Find your zag and let all the other bars zig.”
That said, don’t go overboard with it. “The best websites are relatively simple,” says Kaplan.
4. Add Imagery
White says that one of the most important parts of building a website is visual storytelling. “It’s your moment to give people an idea of design, aesthetic and brand experience, especially if you can tell visual stories in a way that touts your brand’s uniqueness,” he says. “Bars don’t just have their own stories to tell. More often than not, they’re the premier catalysts of stories generated by the patrons. Tell both!”
Kaplan underlines that curating excellent imagery will help tell the story of your bar via a screen. “What’s really important in our industry is the number of photo assets and the depth of photo assets that you have,” he says. That said, “You can give away as little or as much of your bar as you want. That can be via tight detail shots so you’re not giving away the entirety of your space or big, wide shots that give you insight into how grand or intimate your space is.”
This visual aid doesn’t have to be in the form of professional photographs. “Any sort of ephemera or scraps that make up your brand can be integrated into your website,” says Kaplan. Death & Co’s menus feature intricate illustrations, and those are reflected in the website. “Do you have a personal note that you give with every check? You can integrate that into the website and have that come across.” If you approach a website this way, Kaplan feels that building a website can be “a really fun process.”
5. Be Authentic
Think of a website as a way for your patrons to get to know you without being physically in the bar. That means conveying your brand’s values and personality. “The other thing that has always been important and increasingly important is that we want to know more about the companies, especially in the wake of these eye-opening years of trauma and tragedy,” says Kaplan.
“Websites are often a great place for engagement,” says White. “It’s a place for people to stay in the know about menu changes, special events, collaborations and more. It’s a highly trafficked branded-experience digital version of your bar, and there are infinite opportunities to create content that people want to know about. Make content that matters; make content that resonates with people. Pour your heart into showing your ‘why’ as well as how you do what you do and what is super-cool about it. Then people will absolutely drink what’s in the glass.”