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The Restaurateur’s Zen Guide to Email List Building. Why your Restaurant Must Have Email Marketing


This is a guest post by Nate Goodman.

Unique restaurant ingredient known as Galangal
Unique restaurant ingredient known as Galangal

Look, I understand. You're a restaurateur and the last thing you have time for is to send out email marketing messages to your customers. You've got an entire restaurant to run. In fact, you don't even have time to read this article. But just bare with me for a moment. And even if you did have time to send emails to your subscribers, you'd say, "why do I need an email list anyway? I use Facebook to promote my restaurant." So let me make this perfectly clear. No matter how much social media you use to promote your business, nothing, I mean nothing, is as effective as email.

ExactTarget's Channel Preference Survey has shown that although social media is the current raging-bull-in-the-sushi-house, email is the channel that influences the most purchases. Email is where the money is.

It's not that you don't want to use Facebook or other social channels, you do. It's that you want to use all of those social channels to drive sign-ups to your email list. The email list is the center of the wheel, and Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare and all the other social media channels are the spokes that point towards the center of the wheel.

The #1 direct channel that influences the most purchases is email at 66%.

If you have an email list of people who have been to your restaurant and opted-in to your list, you have a means to speak to existing customers directly. It's a lot easier to resell to an existing customer than it is to find a new one. 

What content am I going to email my restaurant customers?

You need to build a relationship with your customers. And you'll do this through meeting them in person, and then through email. Customers that know you will feel a sense of connection to you. So besides sending them the obvious coupons and incentives that bring them back into your place, also give them the history of the place, the history of you, the owner. How you learned to cook, what you specialize in, where you trained, what you cook when you're at home. You want to give customers a sense of who you are. Let them get to know you (and your staff) and thus they'll feel connected to you.

Waldo the waiter with wine
Waldo may not be good looking,
but he's got a great personality : ).
Introduce him to your customers and build the relationship

  • Share your recipes. That's right, I said it. Actually share your recipes with your customers. "What? Share my recipes? Look kid, meatballs don't go with sushi. And, I don't give away none of Mamma's secret recipes." Oh really? You think customers are never going to come back because they now know your secret? Do you think no one comes in to Gordon Ramsay's restaurants because they bought his recipe book and now they just cook for themselves at home? Instead of them always cooking your recipes at home, you'll be surprised how often customers will think of coming in to your restaurant and talking about it with you. You'll position yourself as an expert. Make a video of you cooking the recipe and share a link to the video in email. Use your position of expertise to publish your own recipe book that you sell in your restaurant. Not that anyone would buy it. Your food sucks. I'm kidding.
  • Publish a calendar of events at your store. Do you have any special events? Cultural holidays? Let customers know why they can't miss these great events.
  • Introduce a staff member. You can't be everywhere, but your staff can. Customers should get to know your staff members as individuals. A great way to go deeper is to write about your staff in your email.
  • Highlight an uncommon ingredient you use. Where does it come from? What does it look like when it is grown? What is it used for culturally? Where can customers buy it?
  • Have the chef explain a particular dish. What's special about it? What does it mean to him or her? Show a picture of it and offer it as a house special for this Friday night.
  • Highlight reviews of your restaurant that you find on Yelp. Particularly reviews that rave about a particular dish.
  • Send out menu changes and new items announcements.

How do I build an email list for my restaurant?

Since you are face to face with so many customers, you are in a unique position. There are many places you can ask diners to opt-in to your list. You'll want both a paper sign-up form and a sign-up form on your website.

Whatever you do, be sure the customers want your emails. If they don't, there are lots of problems you will cause for yourself.

  • Do you offer paper menus for customers to take away? Promote the email list there.
  • When customers make reservations, ask them to sign up then, or use OpenTable which enables a sign-up on their site.
  • Put a sign-up form on your website - put it on all pages, or on each menu page.
  • Promote it on the comment card that you're probably already giving to customers.
  • When you bring the check to their table, have the sign-up form in the fold-up booklet. And bring a pen even before you know they want to use a credit card.
  • Put a sign up form in your normal menu when you first bring it to the customer.
  • Create a well made sign up card that has a glossy picture of the free appetizer they'll get if they sign up for your email list. Use this card to get sign-up in the store. And use it if you do catering, or if you have an open house at a partner's neighboring  business.
  • Entice sign ups with a coupon. Put a sign-up form in with your paper menu if you drop menus on neighborhood mailboxes. Only customers who sign up for the email list can use the coupon. Since the paper sign-up form is also a coupon, customers will bring it in the store when they visit.
  • Put  your website URL at the bottom of the printed cash register receipt. Send them to your website to sign up.
  • Do you have an iPad? Have them sign up directly on that when at the register.

A warning about the fishbowl

It's ok to use a glass fishbowl to collect business cards, but unless it is very clear that customers are signing up for an email list when they drop their card in, do not add these people to your subscriber list.

How do I incent my customers to sign up? 

  • Tell them they'll get a coupon by email for a free appetizer
  • Send them a free meal on their birthday or anniversary (as long as they bring a friend!)
  • Tell them they'll receive weekly specials and discounts.
  • Partner with a neighboring business, have an open house together co-promoting each other's businesses. Have a door prize for anyone who signs up for the newsletter like giving away a free dinner for two.

Why are social channels not as powerful as email? 

Because the rate of engagement is so different. With a channel like Facebook, when you post an update, only a small percentage of the fans that have Liked your page are actually going to see it on their timeline. Whereas with email, a high percentage of the recipients on your email list are going to see and read your email, or at least see the subject line in their inbox. You are hitting so many more eyeballs with email. Don't avoid using social media though. Instead, use social media to drive more people to sign up for your email list.

What about Groupon?

I have no problem with Groupon. I'm not saying to not use Groupon. I'm saying that whether or not you use Groupon, your own email list will be worth far more money to you in the end.

Let us know creative ways you've used email to market your restaurant in the comments section.

Image credit: Computer Clip ArtFotoosVanRobin under Creative Commons

Nate Goodman

Nate GoodmanNate Goodman (@ThoughtReach) is an email software designer with over 11 years in the email marketing, social media, and CRM space. Nate is known for two things: sipping Fair Trade coffee all day long and not being able to keep a straight face after playing a practical joke on his co-workers. Nate authors the Thought Reach blog about email and social media topics.

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