There is at least one important metric in which Jersey Mike’s, a sandwich company with more than 450 franchise locations nationwide, has an edge on McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Starbucks: its website loads faster.
The reason is that Jersey Mike’s website uses Adobe Flash—a multimedia platform used to add video, animation, and other dynamic elements to web pages—only sparingly, whereas the larger companies’ sites rely more heavily on the application.
While the same goes for countless other quick-serve websites, Flash is not just a restaurant industry standard. It is a fixture of the wider online business community, used by more than 3 million professionals and supporting 80 percent of the video on the Internet.
“Flash isn’t just a product or a technology,” says Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, an online video platform. “There’s a whole ecosystem that has been built around it.”
Indeed, it would be hard to navigate the web for 10 minutes without using, or at least encountering, a “Flashy” web page. But despite its pervasiveness, the Adobe platform finds itself barred from two of the hottest gadgets on the tech market: the Apple iPad and iPhone.
In explaining his unilateral decision to disallow Flash, Apple CEO Steve Jobs says it uses up battery life too quickly and that “it is the No. 1 reason Macs crash.”
While many have criticized Jobs for the decision, the fact remains that the iPad and iPhone—with a combined tens of millions units sold to date—don’t support Flash.
And as a result, restaurant websites that rely mainly on the software are all but invisible to millions of Apple users, not to mention the millions using Google’s Android mobile operating system, which has limited Flash support.
It was for this reason that Jersey Mike’s, which recently redesigned its website, kept the Flash to a minimum.
“We wanted to have a real buttoned-down experience for smartphones,” says Rich Hope, CMO at the Manasquan, New Jersey–based company.
The fear of Internet invisibility has many other restaurants scrambling, including Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina, a Charlotte, North Carolina–based chain whose site cannot be accessed on the iPhone or iPad because it requires Flash.
Salsarita’s CEO Paul Mangiamele says revamping the company’s web strategy is a top priority.
“We are working on a whole new website with the mobile capability in mind,” he says. “Obviously we won’t be ahead of the curve, but at least we’ll be consistent with the changing trends.”
As a smaller quick-service chain—the company has about 100 locations—“we’re in a fight for our lives and we have to take every opportunity to put ourselves front and center,” Mangiamele says.
Salsarita’s flatfooted response to the rise of smartphones isn’t necessarily a function of the company’s size. In fact, some of the restaurant industry’s biggest players have a less than impressive presence on the mobile web.
For example, KFC’s mobile URL takes visitors to an almost entirely blank page and, seemingly, back to the Internet’s earlier, uglier days. On the other hand, Burger King’s mobile landing page is attractive though slow to load, and it asks visitors to pick which region of the world they are in before they can do anything else. (Asking for a zip code is far more common.)
Restaurant consultant Aaron Allen, whose clients include TGI Friday’s and The Cheesecake Factory, is critical of the industry’s response to mobile Internet technology.
He recounts how the CEO of a top 20 quick serve said he was taking a “wait-and-see approach” to Facebook and Twitter at last year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.
“It’s that kind of thinking that allows upstarts to shoot up the ranks,” Allen says.
The prevalence of Flash on restaurant websites is only one aspect of the industry’s tardy response to the digital age. Its “stubborn resistance” to adopt new technologies has to do with the fact that many restaurant executives are “digital immigrants” born before the advent of the cell phone and Internet, Allen says.
The result is a detrimental disconnect with younger consumers.
“We’re just not as an industry moving as fast as the customers are,” Allen says.
In an attempt to catch up, more businesses are considering HTML5, the latest version of the standard markup language for web pages, as an alternative to Flash, says Whatcott of Brightcove.
Though there is a “feature gap” between the two—Flash remains better for video support and drag-and-drop functionality—“it’s just a matter of time before HTML5 incorporates those capabilities,” Whatcott says. And because HTML5 works on mobile web devices like the iPad and iPhone, though not yet on all web browsers, it poses a threat to Flash’s prevalence on restaurant websites.
But don’t call it a flash in the pan just yet. It will take “several years” before HTML5 supplants the Adobe platform, says Whatcott, adding “if ever, because the thing is that Flash is not standing still.”
If Salsarita’s is any indication, it seems restaurants no longer are either.