Q&A About Restaurant Engine – Business, Pricing, Design, & More…

Since launching Restaurant Engine over a year ago, I have received the following email in one form or another, many times:

I’m really intrigued with what you’re doing with Restaurant Engine.  I’ve had the idea to create a similar WordPress based product, but in an entirely different industry.  Can I pick your brain about building something like this?

As always, it’s my pleasure to answer some questions and help out in any way that I can.  But since I’ve been responding to the same questions, I figured it might be good to copy those questions and answers here for you to see:

If you have any other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll try and answer whatever I can.

When you first came up with the idea for Restaurant Engine, what was the process that you went through to decide what features to offer?

For a while before launching RE, I had been thinking about launching some kind hosted WordPress theme design company.  As popular as the WP themes market had become, I knew there were lots of folks who still didn’t have the know-how to put all the pieces together:  Finding a web host + installing WordPress + finding a suitable theme + configuring it / organizing content + customizing the design…

My next thought was that if it is going to be hosted, it must adhere to a strict set of features and functionality. Unlike self-hosted themes, which tend be adaptable for almost any type of use, a hosted WP solution will have to serve the same set of features to a variety of clients.  So that’s what led to the decision to go niche.

I listed out various niches and chose Restaurants as the first one I’d tackle, simply because it’s a huge worldwide market and there are so many Restaurants who’s website needs a professional touch.

Having settled on Restaurants, I browsed LOTS of restaurant sites, took notes on what worked, what doesn’t, etc. and listed out the most important features.  Obviously food menus, photos, events calendar, reviews, social media integration, etc.  I designed those features and a few extras, then put it out there to get feedback.  It has been interesting to see how customers make use, or DON’T make use of some features.

For example, I thought it might be cool to give restaurants a way to list their Staff with photos and bios.  Nobody used this feature.  So eventually I cut it out.

How did you decide on your pricing model?

Since it’s a hosted service, I knew from the start that it would be a SAAS (software as a service) model.  Then the question was what to set the price point at…

I started by thinking about it would cost to hire someone like me to design a website similar to those offered on Restaurant Engine.  I probably would have quoted that somewhere between $5k-$10k.  This is outside the budget of most restaurants.

The saas model allows you to set the price relatively low, because of recurring subscription adds to the lifetime value of the customer.  So this let me set the monthly/annual price much lower than what it would cost to hire a web designer.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t look at the competition from the other end of the spectrum — the other DIY website builders out there.  Restaurant Engine is probably priced slightly higher than most of those.  My thinking there is I’d rather compete on quality than compete on price.  We also provide a bit more personalized customer service – particularly with our Full Setup Service — than most other providers and our customers appreciate that benefit.

Did you do a test market/soft launch to see how receptive the designs and usability were?

Initially I launched a very quick and dirty landing page, with some basic info about what the service will be, a few images of some theme designs, and an email field to get in on the beta launch.  I drove a bit of traffic to this and built a small list, but enough to convince me to move forward.

I then launched the site in beta, with 2 themes.  I invited the list to come join for free and a bunch of people did that and used the service free for about 2 months.  During this period I was able to squash tons of bugs and usability issues (it’s impossible to catch them all until you have active early adopters in there and breaking things).

I then exited beta and offered those early users a lifetime discount to continue on with the service.  A handful of people took that offer.

Are you using a framework for your themes, or just custom built themes?

The themes are built custom from the ground up.  However, I did work my custom theme design into a reusable framework (of sorts) that I reuse on subsequent themes.  But it’s not a WP Framework in the sense of Parent-Child relationships or anything like that.

Was there functionality that you had to create from scratch that wasn’t available via a plugin?

Yes… though I first looked to available solutions and plugins before trying to custom-build stuff.  Wordpress Multisite handles a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to running a hosted network of sites all pulling from the same set of themes and plugins.  I’m also making use of quite a few plugins — but this is tricky when running a hosted system.  I can only rely on the most trusted and reliable plugins, not just anything from the WP repository.. For this reason, I tend to prefer commercial plugins, like Gravity Forms and Pippins Plugins, which come with support.

The biggest custom-built piece is the customer registration system.  This is quite complex and has taken a long time to get to where it is today (and it is still being evolved and improved still today).  In a nutshell, this custom-built plugin integrates the WordPress user registration, Site creation, and purchase of a subscription via Stripe.

Most of the theme functionality is custom-built as well, such as the food menus, sliders, reviews, and whatnot.  I prefer to have full control over most, if not all, of the features that are visible to end-users.

If I were starting from scratch today, I probably wouldn’t do as much custom dev as I did.  Gravity Forms has come a long way since I launched and there are Stripe add-ons available for that.

What’s the best way to make the dashboard “idiot proof” so that customers don’t get confused or screw things up?

Good question, and I have gone through many iterations on this, and I’d like to do more to improve in this area.  What we currently have is a customized WP dashboard home-screen that includes a welcome video the first time someone logs in.  It also includes links to various video tutorials, viewable right in the dashboard.

I have also simplified the WP dashboard to an extent and stripped out unnecessary features.  Focusing on a niche gives me this luxury to know which features are needed and which will never be used.

But I try and walk a balance with the extent to which I customize the dashboard, because I want to be able to keep WordPress up to date with the latest release.  Keeping things standardized helps in that regard.  Plus, some users are already familiar with WordPress, so I want to keep that general look and feel that they already know intact.

How have you tried to differentiate your business from competitors such as Happy Tables?

Generally, I try not to focus too much on competition.  There will always be competitors, and in my opinion, competition is a good thing.  It shows there is a thriving market in the space.  I just try to keep my head down and focus on what’s working or not working in my own business, and above all, pay close attention to what my customers are telling me.  I don’t make decisions based on what the competition is doing.

At the end of the day, there will always be room for more competition — especially when the product that you’re selling is design.  That’s why there isn’t only one car company, or one clothing company.

I’ve been very impressed with what the guys at Happy Tables have been doing and how they continue to innovate. Although our services are both built on top of WordPress, and both serve the Restaurant industry, I think our respective products and business model are actually quite different.

  • Jaime

    Very interesting post Brian !!
    Can you say something about the infrastructure you use? Servers, VPS, … stuff.

    Thanks

    • Brian Casel

      Sure – I started out on a Hostgator VPS (as a bootstrapped startup, I looked for the lowest-cost VPS plan out there). But I later migrated to WPEngine, which is visibly faster and more reliable.

      Migrating hosts was a big pain – especially when dealing with customer domain mappings. Glad that’s over with 🙂

      • Jaime

        WPEngine or Linode ? Do you admin all your servers ?

        • Brian Casel

          Hosted at WPEngine. They manage the servers and keep them running smoothly.

  • Thanks for this article Brian. I think I sent you an email along the “Can I pick your brain?” lines – and this article has just re-invigorated me to get out there and FINISH my projects to a beta point!

    • Brian Casel

      Good to hear Jeff!

  • JayJohnRobert

    Loved the look of Restaurant Engine and enjoyed the post, in fact the blog is a great (worthy) distraction too! Was the RE pricing table a custom creation?

    • Thanks! Yes, all of the design is custom.

  • Ben Fenwick

    Mate I would love to see the “quick and dirty” landing page you did. Is that possible?

    • Thanks for digging up this old post Ben 🙂

      Sorry, I wish I kept that landing page around, but I don’t have it anymore. It was on a different domain too…

      But from what I remember, it was built using the default WP 2011 theme (I think?). It had one page of copy with a few images of nice looking site designs, and an email opt-in saying you can secure your spot in the early beta period when it opens.