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Does the web really build sales?

Wonder how you ever got along before the Internet? You’re not the only one. A recent Restaurant Business survey of 140 casual, quick-service and fine-dining operators revealed that 72 percent use the Web for business purposes, ranging from taking online reservations and food orders to soliciting comments from their customers.

More important, of those who are hitting the information superhighway, 59 percent say that the Web has helped them increase sales.

“Some of our managers had to be dragged kicking and screaming [to the Web], but now everyone loves it,” says Lisa Cox, who with her husband, Mark, owns Mark’s American Cuisine in Houston. The Coxes have had a website (Marks1658.com) since 1998, but they redesigned it last year to take advantage of high-speed technology, including OpenTable.com, the online reservations service. Now the restaurant gets up to 300 reservations a month through the Web—a lot of that incremental business.

Although it’s somewhat costly (about $400 a month to lease the touch screen equipment and $1 for each reserved cover), Cox says that online reservations are a competitive necessity. It also helps the restaurant manage its seating and table times more effectively—particularly important for a white-tablecloth establishment that’s been voted “Houston’s Most Romantic.”

“We get an awful lot of anniversaries, proposals and important dates here, and because customers can specify that it’s a special occasion, we’re able to provide much better service,” says Cox. OpenTable also provides any number of reports and other options, including ordering history, special requests and cancellation records, and has allowed the Coxes to build a 6,000-name mailing list.

“We use the list to snail-mail Christmas cards,” Cox explains. Only 26 percent of those we surveyed take reservations over the Web. Jeff Jacobs, owner of Carrol’s Creek, a waterfront restaurant in Annapolis, Maryland, wouldn’t take an online reservation for all the crab cakes in the Chesapeake. “Because of the outside deck and the number of special parties we get, we really want to continue having a dialog with the person who’s making the reservation, so we can keep tabs on everything,” he says.

But for catering and special parties, the website (carrolscreek.com) has been a godsend. “We used to fax out five or 10 menus a day, and whoever answered the phone had to take the caller’s name and phone number by hand in order for the catering director to follow up. Now customers can access the information online, and we’re able to track it.”

Jacobs also hopes to use the website as a portal for online sales of his signature crab cakes, sauces and soups, as well as gift certificates. “We do our best to increase sales in-house, but setting up a website with a shopping cart function would really help us build those sales.”

This year, Jacobs plans to revamp the 6-year-old website to add not only more high-speed bells and whistles, but also retail sales capability. In the meantime, the $3,000 investment in Web design services seems like a pittance. “It’s been worth it just to get the fax machine to stop.”

“We love to use our website as a tool for any customer communication,” says Carlos Rodriguez, owner of La Cazuela, a “neighborhood cantina” with eight locations in the Atlanta area. He had an employee launch a site (lacazuela.com) on the cheap a few years ago, but says, “We have found it very useful to update the site and drive users to it.”

One reason is At Your Place, a new service for smaller, self-service catering orders (the restaurants have also done full-service catering and private parties for a number of years). “We were already getting about one-third of our catering inquiries on-line, and now we hope to do just as much business through AYP,” says Rodriguez, who has launched an all-out attempt to urge customers to visit the website.

“Even if people call, I tell them about the site. I also refer them to the site if they have questions about the menu or directions.” He’s printed up new business cards, guest checks and posters touting the site, and estimates that approximately 70 percent of his customer contact now comes via the Internet.

Like 64 percent of those we surveyed, Rodriguez encourages the use of online comment cards. “You get a more honest assessment when it’s written down, and then I also have a record that I can use to track problems.”

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