10 email marketing tips for restaurants, from the pros that help them scale

Mae Rice
11min read
Email marketing
November 16, 2023
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In the competitive culinary landscape, email marketing is an affordable, direct way for restaurants to stay top of mind.

There are 23K+ restaurants in New York City. Another 30K+ in LA.

“Email marketing is a lower lift and a higher reward than paid social and Google Ads,” says Jess Grossman, founder and CEO at digital marketing agency In Social, which works with restaurants like Curry Up Now.

But often, restaurants send email blasts to their entire subscriber lists, Grossman notices. And the strategy starts and ends there.

They may drive purchases, but blasts can harm your sender reputation and make it harder to avoid the spam folder.

Foundational ecommerce email tactics like segmentation and automation can make email a more powerful, sustainable revenue-driver—and with Klaviyo, they can be adapted to fit restaurants, too.

Here’s how, according to Grossman and Carlin St. John, a project manager at WLCR, digital marketing agency for restaurants from Ava Gene’s to Bamboo Sushi.

The importance of email marketing for restaurants

Email marketing isn’t just a way to send messages. Done right, it’s a personalization engine.

That’s super important, because restaurant websites aren’t always the place where customers convert.

On some restaurants websites, diners may be able to order takeout directly, buying like an ecommerce shopper would.

But diners can also order take-out and make reservations on external platforms—or by phone. Plus, the bulk of profits for many restaurants come from walk-in, in-person dining, untethered from any digital user ID.

That all can make it hard for digital marketers to identify, let alone cultivate, loyal customers.

When people opt in to a restaurant’s marketing messages, it changes the game. It lets restaurants access new insights, and communicate in a more personal way.

St. John started using Klaviyo to manage email marketing for restaurants in 2023, and she’s found it’s a great platform for centralizing customer data and crafting more personalized, optimized sends.

Klaviyo empowers St. John to:

  • Get to know customers better: Now, she can see how many email subscribers ordered online or booked a reservation in the past month—metrics it was tough to access with prior platforms.
  • Segment sends more: For restaurants with multiple locations, like Bamboo Sushi, St. John can now target emails about a specific location to the segment of customers who live nearby, or dined there before.
  • Test for event “traction”: Events drive major revenue for the restaurant industry. With Klaviyo, St. John can see if an event is resonating in a low-lift way—reviewing how many email subscribers click on event emails—before investing in less trackable promotion like print ads.

Plus, Klaviyo can help restaurants consolidate customer data from owned and external sites, with pre-built integrations with restaurant technology like Olo, Square, Punchh, Thanx, GoTab, and ChowNow.

Of course, before restaurant teams can do any of this, they need to build their lists. But how?

How restaurants drive email sign-ups

Best case scenario, restaurants can see the email addresses of customers making reservations and placing orders on external platforms—and even then, those diners haven’t explicitly opted into marketing messages from the restaurant.

So how do restaurants collect customer emails (and phone numbers) themselves?

At In Social, Grossman’s team often uses paid Facebook and Google lead-gen campaigns to capture contact info. Other valuable lead capture tactics: on-site pop-ups and submission forms, St. John says.

Usually, restaurants incentivize new customer sign-ups with a reward, like:

  • A financial incentive, like a discount code or a gift craft. Curry Up Now, for example, offers $5 off a purchase of $20 or more to new subscribers to their SMS list.
  • A non-monetary reward, like access to Wi-Fi—à la Starbucks—or early access to upcoming events. The latter works especially well for higher-end restaurants, where a discount might feel off-brand, St. John notes.

10 restaurant email marketing tips

Once you’ve established a list, how do you retain and build relationships with your subscribers? Here are some restaurant email marketing strategies and tactics that have worked well for St. John and Grossman so far.

1. Use customer segmentation like an ecommerce brand

Create segments to include, exclude, and even segments for research purchases, to see how many diners fall into a certain demographic bucket.

“For restaurants, I think the biggest new idea is that you can send the right emails to the right people at the right time and know if it worked or didn’t, which is new territory for this industry,” says Grossman.

For restaurants, I think the biggest new idea is that you can send the right emails to the right people at the right time and know if it worked or didn’t.
Jess Grossman
Founder and CEO, In Social

She especially recommends segmenting based on when a customer last engaged—in the past 30 days? In the last 31-60 days?—and using Klaviyo’s segment-level campaign reporting to track which messages resonate with which engagement level.

Other useful segments, Grossman notes:

  • Guests who haven’t dined with you recently and could benefit from a win-back effort
  • Diners who recently visited a specific restaurant location
  • Diners who purchase often, so you can reward them with VIP exclusive offers

2. Try browse abandonment flows

Restaurants’ take-out and reservation check-out process may be hosted on external platforms, which makes it hard to create an abandoned cart flow.

But with a strategic on-site pop-up, an abandoned browse flow can still work well.

If people subscribe to a restaurant’s owned marketing channels via a pop-up—like this one from Curry Up Now—and then leave the site, the restaurant can send an automated email or SMS follow-up and try to regain their attention.

Source: Curry Up Now

“Browse abandonment flows are something that most restaurants don’t enable because their existing, outdated tech stack can’t support it,” Grossman says—but Klaviyo hosts pop-ups, email, and SMS all in one platform, which makes this easy to set up.

3. Don’t overthink your CTAs

Keep it simple: Think “Buy tickets,” “Order online,” and “Make a reservation,” St. John says.

Occasionally, to highlight seasonal menus or happy hours, she’ll use a “View menu” call to action, too.

Grossman recommends complementing simple CTAs with an announcement bar at the top of each email, reminding customers to order direct from the restaurant, rather than through delivery platforms that take a big cut of revenue.

Ultimately, though, CTAs and microcopy won’t make or break your email. Regardless of the button copy, it should drive online orders, Grossman says.

“The CTA is literally ‘Come into the store,’ and we’re still getting orders out of it,” she marvels.

4. Keep reaching out to diners who haven’t engaged in months

In ecommerce, the highest placed order rate tends to come from your subscriber segment that engaged most recently—typically in the past 30 days.

In restaurants, though, that pattern doesn’t hold. In the dining world, Grossman often sees peak engagement and conversions from subscribers who last engaged 60-90 days prior.

So for restaurants, it’s especially important to think about customer loyalty holistically. Keep sending seemingly dormant subscribers promotional emails and SMS messages, highlighting new menu items, limited-time offers, and special events—while keeping an eye on spam complaints and unsubscribe rates, of course.

Weekly regulars may be your most valuable guests, but a long-term, quarterly regular is valuable too—and may be more influenced by email messages than someone who dines with you more often.

5. Make mouthwatering images the star of your emails

Make eye-catching, professional photos the star of your restaurant’s email program.

They’re pricey, but worth it—food is tricky to shoot in a way that “conveys how delicious it might be,” and professional imagery tends to outperform user-generated content (UGC) for restaurants in A/B testing, St. John says.

Emails with better images and less writing always seem to do better. People want to see the food.
Carlin St. John
Project manager, WLCR

“Emails with better images and less writing always seem to do better,” she says—in fact, she recommends keeping copy to a single paragraph. “People want to see the food.”

“Big pictures of food,” Grossman adds.

6. Optimize for mobile

“People who are looking up restaurants are almost always doing it on their phones,” St. John says.

People who are looking up restaurants are almost always doing it on their phones.
Carlin St. John
Project manager, WLCR

Your email marketing efforts should reflect that, and Klaviyo makes it easy to optimize sends for mobile with a simple toggle. Switch it on, and designs become more responsive—columns stack, margins refresh, and the whole send looks mobile-native when viewed on a phone.

The mobile-first way diners seek out their next meal also means SMS marketing makes sense for a lot of restaurants.

Grossman mentions that at In Social, she and her team will often see higher conversion rates from SMS than email.

7. Don’t assume discounts will destroy your margins

Sending out a discount code can drive major sales—but that doesn’t mean it’s actually getting redeemed, Grossman has learned.

A discount-focused email marketing campaign can boost open rate and click-through rate, but subscribers hooked by the subject line may ultimately buy something the special offer doesn’t cover.

If it gets them a specific dish free, they might not be hankering for the free item; if they get $20 off a $60 order, they may place an order below that $60 threshold.

Often, the vast majority of conversions attributed to a discount code email won’t involve a redemption, Grossman finds—something she’s never encountered in ecommerce.

“That was the biggest surprise for us,” Grossman says. “Giving discounts still brings in a lot of money for restaurants, but without losing margin. It’s a reason to open the email.”

Giving discounts still brings in a lot of money for restaurants, but without losing margin. It’s a reason to open the email.
Jess Grossman
Founder and CEO, In Social

8. Customize your email templates

“We prefer to have more control over how the creative elements look, and stay really true to the branding of each of these restaurants,” says St. John.

Klaviyo’s template systems help her do that. Not only does Klaviyo have a library of 100+ slick templates, but they’re easy to customize; St. John and her team have saved 4-5 custom templates in Klaviyo for each restaurant client.

These saved layouts help them efficiently send 4 emails a week—1 per week per restaurant—each with custom restaurant branding.

“Klaviyo has been a huge improvement over Mailchimp, in terms of saving time on the creative aspects,” St. John says.

9. Try localized content for chains

For restaurants with multiple locations, it can make sense to send out geo-targeted email content. That might mean:

  • Promoting events only to the subscriber segment that lives near the venue and/or dines often at that location
  • Adding localized dynamic content blocks, visible only to segments near a specific location, into broad-brush campaigns
  • Announcing new location openings to email subscribers in the neighborhood, amassed with a Facebook lead-gen campaign. “That’s another reason we like Klaviyo—we can link it to Facebook,” Grossman says. “We can use audience segments in advertising, and paid leads as email segments.”
That’s another reason we like Klaviyo—we can link it to Facebook. We can use audience segments in advertising, and paid leads as email segments.
Jess Grossman
Founder and CEO, In Social

10. Use integrations to measure conversions

Restaurant owners can attribute specific sales to individual emails with a marketing automation platform like Klaviyo.

There are two key factors that make this possible:

  • Klaviyo’s robust ecosystem: With 300+ pre-built integrations, Klaviyo makes it easier for restaurants to connect all their marketing tools, and connect conversions on external platforms back to email and SMS sends.
  • Klaviyo’s straightforward attribution: Klaviyo defaults to last-touch attribution, attributing each conversion to one (and only one) email or SMS message—the one the customer engaged with most recently. No double- or triple-counting, which can artificially inflate email performance analytics on other platforms.

This all helps restaurants better understand each send’s impact, and optimize future sends for conversions—and for Grossman, it gives Klaviyo an important edge over other email marketing platforms built exclusively for restaurants.

“For us, it’s the attribution” that makes Klaviyo stand out, she says. “It’s being able to accurately identify who’s ordering from where, when, and what they ordered, while other platforms seem to muddy the waters with that data.”

Restaurants dig deeper into their data with Klaviyo

With its granular performance data, clean attribution, and extensive, growing ecosystem of pre-built integrations, Klaviyo makes it easy for restaurants to do more with their customer data.

The intelligent marketing automation platform allows restaurant owners to do less blasting their whole email list, and more personalization of the customer experience. With Klaviyo, restaurants can attribute sales to specific email and SMS marketing activities, and target and optimize owned marketing efforts for success.

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Mae Rice
Mae Rice
Mae Rice is a senior content marketing manager at Klaviyo, leading case studies and writing customer-focused blog posts. A longtime journalist and content marketer, she has covered marketing, technology and the ways they intersect since 2019, and her freelance work has appeared in Insider, Vox, Buzzfeed Reader and beyond. She graduated from the University of Chicago and lives in Chicago.