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Restaurateurs Struggle to Match App to Appetite

The website for Fearing's is a pretty good model of restaurant website design. It doesn't sing, or waste time on Flash graphics that never load properly. It helpfully provides menus and hours and allows patrons to make online reservations.

Fearing's iPhone app is somewhat less impressive. The app -- developed a few months back by 99apps.com -- has menu and reservation features too, but it feels clunkier than the elegant website. A photo of chicken-fried lobster runs over text describing the dish, and an ostensible coupon directs users to buy a jar of tortilla soup from Canyon Specialty Foods, but the hyperlink's broken.

More than 50 million people use iPhones and iPads, but the restaurant industry's just starting to figure out how to reach them. The current crop of branded restaurant apps recalls the early days of web design, when restaurant owners recruited their cousins to put together sites with lots of different fonts and pages that scrolled forever. It's surely a testament to the industry's discomfort with the concept that two of the priciest restaurants in town -- Fearing's and Nana -- signed on with a California company that sells out-of-the-box apps for $99 a pop.

Restaurant owners are still puzzling out what a restaurant app can do, especially since there's nothing to stop customers from firing up their websites instead of downloading new programs. Or, almost nothing -- 99apps co-founder Natalie Cookson says many Flash-enhanced restaurant websites aren't compatible with iPhones.

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"One of the biggest problems is restaurant websites don't load at all," she says.

Cookson says apps will increasingly become more sophisticated, offering subscribers text messages with promotional deals.

"We're actually right in the middle of a lot of upgrades," Cookson says. "In about a week, everything will be completely different."

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