A guide to email marketing for restaurants

Published June 8, 2020

While you’re focused on your restaurant reopening and recovery, an email marketing strategy should be part of your plan.

Having an email database or mailing list has proven to help restaurants during times like these. And a simple email marketing campaign goes a long way to keeping customers informed. After all, your customers and community want to hear from you—they want to know if you're open, what services you're providing and how they can place their orders. Email marketing is a great addition to your overall marketing strategy and restaurant customer loyalty program since it keeps guests engaged and helps give them a reason (and a reminder!) to come back.

Use this email marketing guide to help you put the best possible email marketing plan in place for your restaurant, build a great campaign and gain business-building opportunities during a difficult time.


How to start an email marketing program for your restaurant business

Email marketing is an effective digital marketing tool that not only increases business, but also cultivates customer loyalty in a cost-effective way. How frequently you send emails depends on what you need to communicate and how often. Are you sending weekly specials, a monthly email newsletter or quarterly menu updates? Are you sharing general information, or making frequent announcements on your operations and hours? Are you sending loyalty rewards?

Before you start brainstorming marketing ideas, you'll want to take some basics first steps:

  • Collect email addresses from your existing customers and community with an opt in form or sign up form–you can do this on your website, social channels, in your restaurant or with your technology, such as online ordering or mobile payment opt-ins
  • Develop a marketing calendar for the things you can anticipate – whether it’s promotions, menu updates or engagement opportunities such as contests
  • Research best practices for similar restaurants and ask your customers what they want to see and hear
  • Discover email marketing resources that work for your communication needs and budget

Before you dive in, it will be helpful to answer some basic questions:

How often do you want to send emails?

What are the key messages you want to convey?

What sort of discounts and offers do you want to include?

What kind of structure do you want your email marketing campaign to have?

Use this marketing toolkit for restaurants for guidance.


The benefits of email marketing for restaurants

Email marketing isn't new. In fact, the first time someone gave it a try was in 1978 when a man named Gary Thuerk sent an email to 400 people promoting his company's computers. The result? Thirteen million in sales. With the rise of social media and the marketing opportunities it presents, some have wondered if email marketing would become obsolete, but, in fact, the opposite is true: it's gained in popularity for good reason—the biggest being its ROI.

According to Backlinko, email marketing produces $44 for every $1 spent—some studies suggest that the ROI even is higher. And here's a list of some of the other big benefits:

Email marketing is:

  • Far reaching—there's no limit to the amount of people you can reach or the places you can reach them
  • A customer loyalty builder—it's not a one and done, you're cultivating a relationship that nurtures loyalty over time.
  • A direct delivery machine—with the push of a button you instantly reach your audience's inbox.
  • Cost effective—say hello to reducing your printing and mailing costs
  • A revenue booster—you keep current customers coming and reach new customers
  • Measurable—unlike direct mailers, you can use data analytics to gauge customer response
  • Shareable—current customers are much more likely to send an email promotion to a friend

Email marketing is also particularly helpful for restaurants whose brick-and-mortar business needs an online marketing presence. Read Retail Business's article 4 Online Marketing Tactics Brick-and-Mortar Stores Can Leverage to Thrive to learn more.


Email marketing vs. social media marketing for restaurants

The bottom line is that you should have a strong social media presence and strong email marketing campaigns because they each create business benefits, but in different ways. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms offer you quick and easy ways to interact with your customers and get instant feedback—it's thrilling when a customer posts a picture of one of your menu specialties. But social media is largely a platform for strengthening your brand.

Also, and this is true for people of all ages, the first thing many of us do each day is check our email—and we do it throughout the day. We also do it purposefully. Most people also check Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms first thing, but mainly for social digital interaction.

Nevertheless, social media is essential for your brand presence and for other marketing opportunities. Beyond posting pictures and responding to customer reviews, there are a lot of considerations you'll want to make when using it. Check out these tips from Modern Restaurant Management for using social media for marketing to learn more.

And, don't forget, social media marketing is a great way to cross-promote your email campaign.


Without a strong email list, even the best email marketing campaign won't mean much to your business. That's why one of the most important things you'll need to do is grow your email list through an opt-in strategy—and there are a lot of opportunities to do that right now, and perhaps well after. (It's time well spent for your restaurant business.) That's because your customers are ordering online; part of the online ordering process involves providing an email address. Not taking advantage of that would be a big missed opportunity.

Other ways you can grow your email list include:

  • Starting an email chain reaction. In your email, you can ask current customers to share it with friends, offering them a discount for doing so and likewise for their friends who also might share it.
  • Creating an email newsletter and promoting it on your website. If you don't have a newsletter, see if you can create one. Then make sure to include a well placed call-to-action button for customers to subscribe to it. If you're not sure what kind of content works in a regular quarterly or monthly newsletter, try including content about seasonal specials, menu updates, chef and staff profiles, new cocktails, unique ingredient spotlights, wine pairings and operational updates. Just remember, the only bad newsletter is a boring newsletter—so put your brand's personality front and center and let your unique voice shine.
  • Using WiFi marketing to capture customer information, including their email address. When you provide your customers with free WiFi, they have to use their email address to access it. Consider using that space to add an opt-in to your email marketing program. You can also tailor that content based on what they ordered, how long they stayed and how often they come back and more.
  • Increasing your prospects. Understanding your current customers using data analytics can go a long way to helping you reach new customers. Read Epsilon's blog 5 ways restaurants can boost sales with data-driven marketing to learn more.


Email marketing best practices

Strategy is everything, and in the case of email marketing, it's definitely true. To create effective campaigns that build your business, be sure to incorporate best practices into your strategy, including some dos and don'ts:

  • Don't purchase contact lists—there are many reasons why this is a bad idea, not least because it could present a conflict with your email service provider.
  • Don't include 'do not reply' in recipients' email addresses—it simply turns a potential engagement with your customer into a one-way conversation.
  • Don't use too many calls to action—focus on what you want your readers to do (order online, book a reservation for your patio seating, etc.), but don't give them decision paralysis.
  • Don't just use their name—truly personalize the email with what you know about them, like what types of food and drink they usually buy, based on past behavior.
  • Do put a lot of care into the subject line—you want to grab their attention and set your restaurant apart while staying true to your brand.
  • Do focus on lead nurturing by thinking of your customers' needs (and reflecting them) at every step of the email marketing campaign.
  • Do create value in your emails, including discounts, information about your restaurant and also resources that are related to the food industry, but not directly linked to you.
  • Do keep it simple and to the point—when you have too much content most people won't read it
  • Do get creative—make your brand shine and highlight a link/button for your website.
  • Do show off what makes your restaurant unique.
  • Do use in-depth analytics (A/B testing) to figure out what's working and what isn't for future email campaigns.
  • Do consider the day and time to send your email—research has shown that Tuesdays are best, but your audience may be different, check out CoSchedule's blog about the best times to send emails. And test, test, test!


Email service providers for restaurants

By now you can see that a lot goes into effective email marketing, and the good news is you (and your marketing team) don't have to go it alone or figure out how to implement email marketing software without help. Email service providers offer platforms and tools to support as much of your email marketing endeavors as you'd like. Your restaurant technology provider might also offer guest engagement platforms, too. For example, NCR’s Restaurant POS System offer a consumer engagement platform that makes it easy to reach and engage guests via email and mobile.

From helping you create email lists to fully managing your campaign, various providers can help you add email to your marketing plan in a way that makes sense for your restaurant business. But deciding which services you need, and which provider is right for you, takes careful consideration.

Some of the largest email service providers include MailChimp, Constant Contact, SendinBlue, Drip and GetResponse, but there are hundreds of smaller ones to choose from, too. To browse what some of the top providers offer, read 7 Best Email Marketing Services for Small Business (2020).

And no matter the service provider, they should offer the following basic capabilities:

  • Automated email
  • Email template creation or pre-made templates
  • Maintenance of email subscriber lists
  • Analytics to measure click through-rates and other insights

With the right strategy, email marketing campaigns can help your restaurant drive additional business and keep your guests informed. Don’t be afraid to get creative and let your personality shine—you’ll want to stand out in the inbox and remind guests of the experience that’s waiting for them at your restaurant.

Maximize customer engagement and loyalty.

Drive repeat visits and boost revenue through optimized, data-driven marketing

Need more information?