Salt of the Earth.
Pittsburgh is hardly an epicurean paradise. The cuisine here is an assemblage of hearty European immigrant fare and gut-busting Rust Belt bar grub. Our trademark dish is a trucker sandwich that incorporates cole slaw and fries. Our primary culinary contribution to the world is the Big Mac. When it comes to fine dining, forget about Chicago or New York; we’re not even Cleveland. So when Pittsburgh’s signature chef opens up his first restaurant after a seemingly interminable wait, suffice it to say it’s a big deal.
When Jay met Kevin.
The kitchen has always been my siren. At several points, I’ve nearly dropped a successful career in the Internet to attend culinary school, but never could quite pull the trigger.
So in mid-2008, when I heard that Kevin Sousa was taking over the kitchen at a restaurant in my neighborhood, I saw my opening. I was going to offer to work for Kevin, for free if I had to. At the time, I was the creative director at a local web shop, a typical 9-to-5 affair, and my evenings were fairly open. I didn’t need the money; I just wanted the experience. I contacted Kevin through a friend-of-a-friend and offered my services. A few nights later, we met for a beer. A few weeks later, I was working the line.
It didn’t last very long. Several months after Kevin took over, he left the restaurant amid friction with ownership. He knew his next step couldn’t be another existing restaurant; he had to start his own place. Fuzzy details of the plan spread fast, and Kevin stoked the flames with a post on his blog. Over the next year and a half, the anxious Pittsburgh dining public watched and waited as Kevin located a potential space, secured investors, lost those investors, secured other investors, held buzz-building guerrilla dinners, and took a side gig resurrecting the now wildly popular Yo Rita Taqueria.
To say that expectations for Salt of the Earth are high is an epic understatement. For many, it is nothing short of the tipping point of local cuisine, the restaurant that will raise the long-stagnant tide of Pittsburgh dining. Although our work had nothing to do with the food, we felt that we needed to exceed those expectations in whatever ways we could. We set out to make the best restaurant website in Pittsburgh for what was expected to be the best restaurant in Pittsburgh.
The evolution of an identity.
Before we could start designing the Salt of the Earth website, we needed to nail down the identity. Easier said than done. In the last two years, we’ve given Salt more faces than Joan Rivers. The earliest designs, circa October 2008, were based on the restaurant’s plan to feature two large communal tables.
We appropriated the exact form of the tables in plan view as the mark. It was simple and striking, geometric and industrial. It was an extended equal sign, a literal and figurative symbol of the restaurant’s lack of fine dining pretense. It was a winner. Kevin even went so far as to have sample business cards printed. But when the communal tables were struck from the interior of the restaurant (only, ironically, to reappear a year and a half later as three communal tables), the logo was DOA.
The next iteration of the Salt mark will be familiar to anyone who participated in last year’s underground dinners: the infamous NaCl.
This mark was created, if you will, as a temporary face for the restaurant during its “guerrilla dinners” phase. For those of you who are unfamiliar, to tide diners over until Salt could officially open, Kevin held a series of informal tasting dinners in the building that was to become Salt of the Earth. The space was a shell: no heat, no hot water, just folding tables and chairs, illuminated by construction lighting. The food was cooked on a portable 4-burner cooktop, and served on paper plates. But people showed up in droves to eat Kevin’s food, even if it meant eating it in a heat-less building at the tail-end of a Pittsburgh winter.
In retrospect, there was a lot to like about the NaCl logo. It was rough-hewn, indicative of the no-nonsense soul food on the menu. It was scientific, reflecting the modern techniques in Kevin’s culinary arsenal. In many respects, it was the anti-logo: undesigned, unpolished, lifted straight from a tattoo on the chef’s hand. It was cryptic and punk, the perfect mark for the pre-launch, underground days of the restaurant; an unrefined mark for an unrefined time. We even managed to sell a few t-shirts emblazoned with the logo.
But as the launch of the restaurant drew nearer, it became evident that it simply wasn’t going to be appropriate for what Salt of the Earth was going to become.
For the final Salt of the Earth logo, we wanted to create something that was elegant and identifiable, but didn’t forget its roots, something that matched the intended spirit of the restaurant itself. There’s an obvious reference to the legacy NaCl logo, but the rough edges have been cleaned up to incorporate the strict geometry of the original mark. The circle and cross form an Earth icon, and the dots are a nod to the classic diner salt shaker lid. For the logotype, we wanted to retain the geometric typeface from the original mark, so we updated Futura with the more contemporary and architecturally derived Neutraface. Coincidentally, Neutraface designer Christian Schwartz was a former Carnegie Mellon design student of Salt of the Earth architect Liza Cruze.
After nearly two years and three “official” attempts, Salt of the Earth finally had an identity. It was time to design the website.
What’s wrong with restaurant websites.
Most restaurant websites are awful. It’s an epidemic. Some of the best restaurants in the world have horrendous websites. But why? As far as I can tell, they’re typically the result of a marriage between two factors that can bring down any website: misguided goals and low budget.
By rule, restaurants are preoccupied with creating an experience. Everything conspires to create that experience, whether intentionally or organically: food, interior, music, lighting, plates, all the way down to the shoes on the servers’ feet. Most restauranteurs think this feeling needs to extend to the website, and to a point they’re right. Like any other web project, the site needs to be a visible extension of the client’s brand. But there’s one critical difference. When patrons visit a restaurant, they’re expecting that experience. When they visit the restaurant’s website, they’re expecting content: hours, contact information, directions, and an accessible menu. If it’s an upscale restaurant, information about reservations, dress code, or a wine list is helpful. If the chef is notable, maybe a blog. That’s all they’re looking for. But more often than not, that content is buried beneath a foothill of poor user experience decisions—lengthy Flash intros, auto-play music, a PDF-only menu, unusable navigation—if it’s there at all.
Many of these issues can be mitigated by hiring the right people. However, restaurants are, at best, low-margin enterprises. Even successful restaurants barely make enough money to cover their expenses, much less hire a company to build a proper website. This financial position forces restauranteurs to pick from the bottom of the web design barrel: the $500 freelancer, the Flash hacks, the nephew’s best friend types. These people don’t know the first thing about strategy, user experience, or modern web design. And just like any other design project, when you hire the inexperienced and untalented, then tell them to aim at the wrong target…well, you get what you pay for.
A shot over the bow.
We had a pretty good idea of what we didn’t want the Salt of the Earth website to be. Clunky, self-centered restaurant websites were the inevitable outcome of poor process and wrongheadedness, hallmarks of an outdated way of thinking. We wanted Salt to be the archetype for a modern breed of restaurant websites: beautiful and engaging, but simple, focused, usable, standards-based, and native to the mobile era. Its aesthetic matches the space, the food, and the city of Pittsburgh. It has enough dynamic visual details to keep visits interesting, but never distracting. It contains nearly every piece of information a patron might want to know, organized in a clear hierarchy. It works on the iPhone, it works on the iPad, it works on any modern mobile browser and any desktop browser newer than IE6 or Firefox 2. And we’re happy to say it contains no Flash, no music, and no PDFs.
The make the Salt of the Earth website, we used a host of modern web goodies. Here’s as close as we can come to an exhaustive list:
- WordPress architecture.
- hCard microformats for all contact information.
- HTML5 semantic elements, including section, article, header, footer, and aside.
- RGBa CSS and image transparency.
- A focus state on comment/contact forms, with webkit-transform for added Safari/Chrome fanciness.
- Session-based color themes.
- Rotating, scaling, full-bleed photo backgrounds.
- Google Maps and Twitter integration.
You never forget your first.
Salt of the Earth is the first full website and identity launch for Full Stop. From chef Kevin Sousa, to owners/architects Doug & Liza Cruze, this project is an example of what’s possible when a client and designer trust each other to do their respective jobs make the right choices. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh, stop by Salt of the Earth for something to eat, and tell ’em Full Stop sent you.