I have fond memories, though my cholesterol level does not, of eating at D’Best Sandwich Shop in Boca Raton. It’s been a few years, but as I recently munched on a Miami Cuban-style cheesesteak my mind started wandering and I got to wondering if D’Best still existed. As I went looking for their website, I recalled a few of their regional twists on the cheesesteak, like the New York style, a New Jersey style… not to mention their incredible non-steak explosion of an entire Thanksgiving meal directly onto a bun (D’Pilgrim).
D’Best still exists, alright… but I was truly unprepared for what I found.
You see, back when I’d visit, D’Best-the-subshop was a place you’d leave coated with a thin layer of grill grease. Had to wait in line? You’re washing your hair tonight. The place was by no means messy, but it had a certain unfinished quality to it… definitely the kind of place where the food matters more than the branding. I’d describe it as feeling somehow honest… completely lacking in pretense. Kind of blue collar? Yeah, I guess.
You can probably tell why I was expecting the website to be endearingly terrible. I was ready for a little Comic Sans, an “under construction” GIF, and a scanned paper menu — as a multi-megabyte bitmap, of course. That would seem normal. Kind of quaint.
D’Best-the-website, however, looks very professional. It’s fast, designed to modern standards, has eye-pleasing amounts of whitespace — oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s responsive — and is even served over HTTPS. Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely lacking in character? It feels like it should belong to… I don’t know, L’Best Artisinal Panini Bistro.
And it very well could.
But what really raised an eyebrow was this line:
We have an unwavering commitment to flavor. Connect with us and let us know how we are doing.
And also, this one:
We never stop short of a culinary experience you’re sure to enjoy.
D’Best’s flavor may not waver, but you’d never hear that out of their mouths. Their sandwiches may be delicious, but a “culinary experience” they are not. This is a place where the meat gets grilled by guys in football jerseys, backwards baseball caps and maybe a tattoo or two.
Something was rotten in the state of Boca, so I plugged the above phrases into a search engine. And then I did one of these. It turns out there are at least 80,000 restaurants whose websites promise the same “unwavering commitment to flavor,” and look more-or-less exactly the same as D’Best’s.
All of these, including D’Best and Hickory Hut St. Paul, say the’re “Powered by EatStreet,” a website-in-a-box service for restaurants. EatStreet seems to host these sites, and provides them with a generic design template as well. All of these different restaurants, from all over the country, basically end up with the exact same website, with the exact same messaging, except for a few small tweaks.
This feels a little slimy on the surface, but is there anything wrong with it? After all, restaurants’ websites are of truly hyperlocal interest. I mean, nobody in DeKalb, Illinois is looking for D’Best. They’re more interested in The Huddle American Food… which has the exact same website as D’Best. Sigh.
In the interest of being honest with myself, I tried to explore just which part of me was so offended by this. Was I offended as a food person? As a past D’Best devotee? Or as a copywriter who can’t help but see this as a business getting by without needing the services of myself or someone like me?
To reach the answer, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the owner of D’Best, and I realized that, you know, it must have been a whole lot nicer to run not just restaurants, but most kinds of local businesses before the Internet. Some person who really needs to be worrying about keeping rats out of the kitchen doesn’t want to think about about building and securing a website, plus dealing with all the Internet necessary-evils (Yelp, Google, Facebook, OpenTable, Square, Foursquare, etc.) that supposedly exist to bring them customers, but instead use their stature to intermediate the customer relationship, and extract a recurring fee for doing so for the rest of forever. (Actually, a few of those companies would love it if D’Best decided to give up on running a standalone website.)
If EatStreet can keep a simple site up and running smoothly, plus keep it more secure than the proverbial site-by-nephew, is that really such a bad thing? After all, a few decades in, the Internet is still not made for normal people; there’s just too much that can go wrong if one doesn’t have the specialized knowledge to do technical stuff properly. There’s definitely value in simplifying things for a normal person who just want to run their damn businesses. So even if EatStreet is yet another friendly intermediary, thanks to them one can order a D’Best Philly style online — consider my mind blown. Could that functionality exist without some centralized service keeping the Internet gears running smoothly in the background, handling the credit cards and taking a cut?
For all the upside they deliver in functionality and security, however, EatSreet sure has their tendrils into D’Best in an inadvisably-deep manner — a quick whois check shows that EatStreet actually owns D’Best’s domain name. Or should I say their new domain name. I found this other domain that still contains an older D’Best website. While this site is still slicker than it should be — remember, my cheesesteak place’s site should look a little like their paper menus, minus the grease stains — this site’s a lot closer to what I would expect. There are some typos. It’s got a page where you can meet the team. It has a freakin’ FAQ page where they tell you how to reheat a cheesesteak (which, by the way, they say you shouldn’t do).
This Internet archaeological find is a sign that someone once cared about and hand-crafted D’Best’s web presence… but at some point said “fuck it, this EatStreet thing doesn’t make me think.” Thanks to their scale, EatStreet can centralize best practices for all of their customers, but they can’t centralize the déclassé character, the local flavor, the unique greasy fingerprints that inevitably end up on the website when it’s made by the owner’s proverbial teenage nephew.
While those at the helm of D’Best can do what they think works for them, it just sucks to see a place with so much flavor take the path lacking in taste. But they have cheesesteaks to make, and as long as people keep coming through the door to order these greasy wonders on bread, they don’t have anything to worry about.
Ultimately, I guess I’m just writing about myself and my preferences. While you couldn’t stop me from grabbing a cheesesteak if I happened to be in the neighborhood, from where I’m standing I can’t help but see big, lazy centralization as the sworn enemy of goodness. May I never get too big to have taste.