The Power of Email Marketing for Restaurants

Don CrosslandMarketingLeave a Comment

email marketing for restaurants

If you are not using email marketing for your restaurant, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to nurture repeat business.

Email is the absolute best way for restaurants to market their business—hands down. It’s a bold statement, but I stand behind it 100%. In terms of time, money, and resources, it is also the least expensive method with the highest return on your investment.

“I use email to run my entire company. More than 90% of my revenue is generated directly from automations and newsletters – three courses, five books, two software products, two digital products, a weekly article newsletter, and two podcasts. All fully automated, segmented and running on email.”
-Paul Jarvis, Company of One

You own your email list—unlike social media where the platform decides how many of your customers you can reach. It is a direct link to your customers and is essential for reminding your customers you exist.


If you read this blog, you’re going to see top-of-mind a lot. Marketing is an exercise in memorization. People need a consistent reminder that you are there. We call it top-of-mind and that’s where you want to be. There are a lot of restaurant choices and they are not going to come to yours every time. Top-of-mind means you’re still in the mix when it comes time to choose.

You’ll see email marketers obsessing over open rates and click-through rates. If those numbers are high—great. But, just seeing your restaurant name in their mailbox regularly reminds them you exist and creates top-of-mind.

Email List-Building

The challenging part, as with most things, is getting started. You have to build your own email list of interested customers. You can’t buy a list, that’s spam. Most email service providers (ESP) will shut your account down for using someone else’s list.

The first place to start is a signup form on your website. There should also be a pop-up when people have been on your site for a minute or when they are getting ready to leave. Yes, pop-ups are annoying and everyone hates them—and they work.

You can set up a computer or tablet with a signup page in your restaurant where customers can sign themselves up. Many modern POS systems have an opt-in option for emails. However, they must opt-in to receive emails from you. If they don’t, it’s spam.

Give them a reason to sign up

Give people a compelling reason to sign up for your email—nobody is signing up for your ‘newsletter’ and no one is signing up to be bombarded with ads. Be clear about what people are signing up for and offer something of value in exchange for their email.

Some ideas include:

  • Free appetizer
  • Free entrée on your birthday
  • Invitation to special events
  • BTS/Recipes
  • Access to a secret menu (my favorite)

List Building Case Study: Dulce Vida Latin Bistro

Dulce Vida Latin Bistro is a small, 24-top restaurant in NYC. They had a small email list (under 50) which actually put them ahead of much of their competition. One reason the list was small, was because they were occasionally asking people for their email addresses and inputting them manually.

Dulce Vida wanted to start promoting direct online ordering for take-out and delivery from their website (Seamless and UberEats were killing their margin). I decided this was a perfect opportunity to start building their email list.

Signup form from restaurant website

We offered a 15% discount on all direct orders (3rd party delivery services were around 30%) for a year for signing up. They sign up, we send them a coupon code, and now they are on the email list.

In just the first 3 months, the email list grew to over 400, direct online orders increased by 250%, and the profit margin for deliveries increased by 15%. Not bad for a 24-top restaurant.

When Dulce Vida had their Valentine’s Day Prix Fixe special, they were able to promote it to hundreds of customers instead of less than 50. I’m pretty sure they sold out that night.

Emailing Guidelines

Email marketing is a part of your brand experience. This will likely be the way you will be communicating with your customer the most, outside of your restaurant. Make sure the tone and voice of your emails are the same as your customers would experience if they were in your restaurant. Make it conversational.

Like most things in life, email marketing will work better if you have a plan.

Add Value

There’s no hard and fast rule for what to send and how often. The hard rule is to add value with each email. Nobody wants to be bombarded with ads. You should give value five times for every one time you ask for a purchase.

When I say give value, I don’t mean offer discounts or free food. What I mean is send them something that they will find interesting. People love to be part of the ‘in’ crowd. Give them a peek behind the scenes. Share a recipe, or better yet, make a video of the chef demonstrating how something on your menu is prepared.

One of my favorite ideas is creating a secret menu. Only subscribers to your list can order special items that aren’t on the menu. Creating dining or social events exclusively for subscribers is also a great way to make them feel special. So even when you’re inviting them to come in for a purchase, you’re still adding value.

Be Consistent

How often you send out an email is entirely up to you. How often can you create valuable content to send out? You can send out emails as often as you want. As long as they are interesting and add value.

Unless you have a full-time content creator, I wouldn’t suggest trying to send something out too often. Once a week could be a challenge. Once or twice a month is usually what I recommend. Less than that, and you’re risking people unsubscribing because they forgot they signed up.

Whatever you decide, be consistent. If it’s two times a month, decide what days and send it out every month on the same days. Don’t miss a month and then send out four the next month.

The Power of Automation

Another great thing about email is most of it can be automated. Most ESP’s like Mailchimp, Active Campaign, Constant Contact, etc. have some sort of email automation feature. Once they are set up, they can run themselves. At least initially.

I set my clients up with a 4 to 5 email sequence that is automatically sent daily as soon as someone signs up. We call this an onboarding sequence. to see what one of these looks like, check out the Dulce Vida Latin Bistro email case study.

If you do a birthday giveaway, you can set up an automation that will automatically send people an email on or near their birthday. You set it and forget it. The ESP does the rest.

Creating Synergy

Email is an important part of any marketing strategy. If used correctly, it can help create synergy with your other marketing efforts. I call this the marketing vortex.
zenzino marketing vortex
People come to your site, sign up for your email list, come for dinner, get invited to an event, have an awesome time and share it on social media, their followers see it and follow you and visit your site to sign up receive invitations to your special events, come for a meal, and round-n-round it goes—how big it gets, nobody knows.

Using Ads to Build Your List

So far most of these strategies have applied to keep your existing customers coming back. And that’s not nothing. 70% of your business should be repeat customers. It costs more to acquire new customers than it does to get existing ones coming back.

However, online ads can be a great way to attract new sign-ups for your list. If you have some sort of birthday giveaway, here’s a Facebook strategy that we found to be very effective:

Create an ad highlighting your giveaway. Facebook can then target that ad to people in your area that have a birthday coming up. The ad links to a page where people can sign up for your email and get their birthday giveaway.

On Instagram, you can target people in your area that are interested in restaurants. This is usually based on users who follow other restaurants and/or comment on other restaurant photos. Make them an offer they can’t refuse to sign up for your email list.

Don’t call it a list. Make it something more interesting and less like “we’re going to market to you”. Think up a name for it. Insiders club. Dining dynamos.

I’ve had clients ask me, “If we’re going to advertise why don’t we just advertise for them to come in?” The answer is simple: when people see your ad they may not be ready to eat. If they’re not, they’ll forget about your ad and that ad dollar is wasted. If the ad is to sign up, they’re already online, it just takes a couple of clicks and very little commitment. Now you can continue to communicate with them.

In marketing terms, the stages of the customer relationship are awareness, curiosity, enlightenment, and commitment. Commitment is when they decide to buy from your restaurant. Email marketing is a low-commitment tool to transition prospective customers from curiosity to commitment.

Of course, there is more information about the ins and outs of email marketing than I could possibly write in one article. There is literally an entire section in the bookstore on the subject. If you would like to learn more, you can contact me directly with any questions. And, of course, you can sign up for my email to get more marketing tips for your restaurant. Because I practice what I preach.

If you don’t think email marketing is right for your restaurant, I’d love to hear why in the comments below.