How to Choose the Best WordPress Theme for a Restaurant

Finding the right WordPress theme for a restaurant, cafe or bar isn’t easy. Every business builds its brand on a unique sense of character and personality. But restaurants, more than most businesses, live or die on the emotional resonance they generate with their customers.

When looking for a WordPress theme, most shoppers will scan dozens — if not hundreds — of different themes in search of that perfect fit: a theme with the right colors, the right fonts, the right design.

“Lists can be useful, of course, but they won’t tell you what you really need to know to choose the best theme”

Whether you’re an individual looking to build their own website or a web-design agency looking for a theme for your client, you’ve probably already visited lots of sites claiming to list the “Best WordPress Themes”. Most of the time, however, these sites aren’t really evaluating the products they promote. They’re usually more interested in simply presenting you with a list of themes and hoping you’ll buy one in order to get an affiliate referral fee. Such lists can be useful, of course, but they won’t tell you what you really need to know to choose the best theme.

I’ve been producing carefully engineered, SEO-friendly WordPress themes and plugins for restaurants for some time now. During that time, I’ve watched many people struggle to marry the needs of their clients with the limits of the themes they’ve selected. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about what to look for — and what to look out for — when shopping for that ideal WordPress theme design.

In this article, I’ll walk you through three critical things you need to think about when choosing a theme — so that the next time you find yourself looking for that ideal restaurant theme, you’ll be able to make choices that lead to lasting solutions and save both you and your clients time, effort and money.

Seek a business solution, not just a website

When shopping for a theme, a lot of people go for a design that stands out from the crowd. But there’s a lot more to a theme than just its looks; successful restaurant websites need to bring customers through the front door.

Before you decide on a theme, make sure that it prioritizes the display of information that customers demand, such as (at the very least) the restaurant’s address, phone number and opening hours. Additionally, the design also needs to incorporate — and clearly show — the restaurant’s exact location on an easy-to-understand map. Many restaurants get a lot of tourist traffic, and tourists won’t know common street names. Using one of Google’s “Get Directions” links is a great way to ensure people are confident they can find your restaurant.

“Without rich snippets, you’re already at a handicap when it comes to growing search engine traffic to you or your client’s business”

The best themes will also employ Rich Snippets. This special markup will encourage search engines like Google to show important data, such as the restaurant’s location, when users perform local searches — an absolutely vital marketing channel for restaurants. This is often accomplished using something called microformats or Schema.org markup. If you’re not sure how to test the code for this, reach out to the developer of any theme you’re interested in and ask them how they handle this. Without it, you’re already at a handicap when it comes to growing search engine traffic to you or your client’s business.

Another common problem I see with restaurant themes is lack of support for a good online reservations platform. Many themes advertise support for taking online reservations, but when you look into it, you’ll find that they only support a basic contact form with a few custom fields. That means your client will only receive an email notification. They’ll still have to manage the rest of the booking process themselves.

Because it’s such a core part of a restaurant’s workflow, ask the developer of any theme you’re considering if their reservations system supports automatic rejection of out-of-hours booking requests and automatic notifications when bookings are confirmed or rejected. This is an essential requirement for just about any restaurant that has peak hours where floor staff are swamped with work. Managing online reservations needs to be as quick and painless as possible. The easier things are for your client the happier they’ll be.

These are the most vital features I’ve noticed that are commonly missing from WordPress restaurant themes; however, they’re not the only ones you should consider. Here are a couple of other business solutions that will save you and your clients’ time and energy if you consider them before making a purchase.

Does your client already have a mailing list for their restaurant? Look for a theme that comes with support or will help you integrate style support for a plugin that works with your client’s mailing list provider.

Are you selling food or swag online? If so, you’ll want to find a theme that is built with integrated styles for an appropriate eCommerce platform, like WooCommerce.

Does your restaurant have multiple venues? If so, make sure whatever features you need will work across all venues. For instance, my Restaurant Reservations plugin doesn’t support multiple venues out of the box — and getting them all in one inbox would be a jumbled mess!

Designs that earn money

I already mentioned that character, personality and branding are particularly important for restaurants. But a good website design is a design that converts online visitors into bricks-­and-­mortar customers. Here are a few tips on how to find the right design.

Photo quality is important. You’ll notice that most WordPress restaurant themes deploy very high-quality photography in their demo. Often, the theme will have been built around one or two key pieces of photography.

When choosing a theme you need to think carefully about what kind of photographs you have for the site and whether or not the theme will work well with these assets. If you don’t have top-­notch photographs, steer clear of that great-looking theme with the full-screen background image. Most restaurants don’t actually need to show images of the food on their menu, so find out what the theme looks like without all those gorgeous stock photos on the menu page before you decide.

“Often the most beautiful theme demos are the ones that are the most dependent on very particular imagery”

Often the most beautiful theme demos are the ones that are the most dependent on very particular imagery. These can leave you in the lurch when you go to implement them, and you’ll be wondering why the demo looks so much better than what you’ve been able to do with it.

Aside from the visual impression of a theme, a design also needs to nudge people in the right direction. In the last section, I mentioned it was important that a restaurant’s address, phone, opening hours and reservation forms were easily accessible, but a great theme will go much farther.

When looking at a theme, try to think about what your conversion funnel will be. This is the specific set of actions that will lead a user from landing on your site to walking into the front door of the restaurant. Often times, you’ll want to capture their attention with arresting photography or gain their trust by displaying customer reviews; but, it invariably ends with the visitor making a reservation, finding a phone number or looking up an address.

A good design will condense that trajectory and nudge users as quickly as possible towards their — and our — end goal. If your theme hides critical navigation elements, has too many distracting animated elements, or employs long pages full of distracting content, it can quickly go from being a slick presentation to just getting in the way of what the visitor is trying to achieve.

This leads me to the most common mistake I see when people look at designs of WordPress restaurant themes: they opt for visual flair that often comes with hidden costs — both in terms of technical compatibility and user experience.

A common trend today is for themes to employ pre-loaders — animated loading transitions when you go from one page to another. A lot of themes are also trying to stand out in a crowded market by making heavy use of animated elements, or by packing a long list of layout options into a single theme.

In my experience, this frequently leads to more errors and compatibility problems for a website. It also often results in slower loading times, which poses a critical problem for restaurants. HappyTables, which runs a restaurant website service built on WordPress, says that half of all the visits they log to their restaurant clients come from mobile devices. That means half of those visitors are on slower connections and using devices with much less memory. Even a four or five-second wait for a restaurant website to load will lead to lost business. Low-cost or middle-of-the-market mobile devices struggle with pages that contain a lot of animation.

In almost all cases, the quality of a restaurant’s photography will convey its character and personality far more than the flashiness of its website. I strongly encourage you to pay up — or convince your client to pay up — for a professional food or venue photographer. These people know what they’re doing — use them!

Check who you’re buying from

The last part of the process is always the hardest. How do you know that what you’re buying was made to a high standard — not only in terms of design, but also in terms of code quality? How do you know whether the person or company behind the theme will support you if you have any problems with the theme? And how do you know if they’ll continue to support that theme one or two years down the line?

Unfortunately, unless you’re a seasoned web developer capable of understanding all the code that makes up a theme, there’s really no way to be absolutely certain of a theme’s quality. Even if you are, there’s no way to be certain of its longevity; the WordPress marketplace for themes and plugins is very fluid. People sometimes enter, grow and flame out quickly. A lot of products end up being abandoned. Here are a couple of quick tips that should help you weed out the really bad apples:

First, contact the theme author for pre-sales support. Ask them a question about the product. Any question will do, but if you’re at a loss, ask one of the many questions I’ve already suggested in the previous sections of this article. You need to know whether they provide support that is timely and helpful. Many will reply quickly, but with poor answers that are not very helpful. Some might not reply for several days or even weeks.

When getting in touch with them, ask yourself whether you’re happy with the promptness of their response — but also the tone and knowledge of their replies. Do they care about your needs, or are they just looking to get through their queue of support tickets as quickly as possible?

Look for someone that really understands what you’re trying to accomplish and wants to help you succeed. That doesn’t mean they’ll be able to provide whatever support you ask for, but even when saying no to something, they should be clear, courteous and helpful.

“Many theme authors drop a theme into a big marketplace, score a bunch of early sales, fix a few bugs and then move on a few months later”

Next, do a little research to see if they make on-going updates and investments in the themes they produce. Many theme authors drop a theme into a big marketplace, score a bunch of early sales, fix a few bugs and then move on a few months later. If a changelog exists for your theme, see how frequently updates are still being released.

You can also look for other signs that the author is still invested in the product. If they have other similar products and are still producing new ones, that suggests they’re not just a one-off side project, and still actively investing in the work they do.

Lastly, you’ll want to look into how they handle the functionality they support. This is a more technical issue, and harder for non-developers to grasp. But you’ll want to ensure that your restaurant menu, table bookings and other data are not locked into the theme. This is done by building these features into plugins, which carry over from one theme to the next. Ideally, your theme should integrate with popular plugins that are widely compatible. This will minimize your friction two or three years down the road when your client wants to refresh their site.

Finding the perfect fit

So where do you go to get all of these things? Surely there must be one marketplace, one theme provider, who puts it all together for you so you don’t have to worry about all of this. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Every marketplace or theme shop has both it’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Every marketplace or theme shop has both it’s strengths and weaknesses”

Even a market like ThemeForest, which is often criticized for the low technical merits of its themes and poor customer support, still has a number of individual authors that put out great themes and provide attentive support.

I’m proud of the restaurant themes and plugins I sell at Theme of the Crop. Most of the features I support are available for you to use in any theme — or just test them out before buying a theme — as free plugins on the official WordPress.org plugin repository, such as Food and Drink Menu, Restaurant Reservations, Business Profile and Good Reviews for WordPress.

If you pay attention to the three main things I’ve outlined in this article, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a great theme — with a little work of course — in a number of different places. It could be ThemeForest’s restaurants category, where some authors are starting to adopt my plugins and a few even provide great support. Or you might look at the free official theme repository, where all themes need to undergo a rigorous code inspection to be listed. There’s even a restaurant theme from WooThemes, a widely respected company.

No matter where you find your theme, remember to focus on the business solutions a theme supports to ensure it matches the needs and workflow of your client. Choose a design that converts visitors into customers and which fits the quality of photography you can provide. Finally, be sure to do your homework on the theme author to make sure they provide helpful support, continued investment in their products, and data portability.

It’s no small task. But if you follow these guidelines, you’ll almost certainly reduce the time you spend struggling with the wrong theme for the job!

By Nate Wright

Nate Wright runs Theme of the Crop where he makes WordPress work for restaurants. His growing collection of themes and plugins help restaurants maximize their SEO, manage reservations and make better restaurant websites. Got a restaurant client? Say hello.
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