Read my letter

A well-done customer newsletter can extend a good experience once customers have left your restaurant.

A well-done customer newsletter can extend a good experience once customers have left your restaurant.

If you communicate with your customers with an effective newsletter, they’ll keep coming back, says Rowena Mary.

Restaurant newsletters have become increasingly prevalent as restaurateurs try to find more ways to keep in touch with their customers. Whether via email or ‘snail mail’, a newsletter is one of the best and easiest ways a restaurant can foster a relationship with its clientele—thus encouraging repeat business. No wonder this successful marketing method is catching on fast.

Think about it—an average customer could go to their favourite restaurant one evening, and even if they had an outstanding experience, it might be another two months before they visited again. But if they received a newsletter, it would remind them of their experience, bring certain information to their attention and perhaps even be something they could forward on to their friends. The restaurant would once more be ‘top of mind’. So it really makes commonsense for restaurateurs to try and keep in contact with these customers on a regular basis.

More often than not, you have a captive audience. If someone has personally signed up for a newsletter, they are more likely to read it. In effect, what you have is a commercial message that someone has asked for.

In order to create a newsletter, you must first have people to send it to, so you need to establish a database. There are various ways of doing this. Taco Bill is one organisation that has been able to launch a successful, sustained marketing campaign via drawing people in with ‘buy one, get one free’-type vouchers and so on.

“That sort of aggressive emailing really works,” says Ken Burgin from Profitable Hospitality. “The [mailing] list is one of the most important things to build up. It can become very valuable.”

Name and address please

Burgin suggests a number of ways to capture data: from as simple as passing around an exercise book, to giving out vouchers for a ‘lucky draw’ to win prizes, or perhaps providing feedback forms asking questions like, ‘how was the food? The atmosphere? Do you have any suggestions?’

You can also collect customers’ business cards. “Anywhere from a third to 50 per cent of people will respond if there’s a prize,” says Burgin. “Just make sure you keep a record of how you got people’s address. Spam laws require direct or implied permission to get someone’s address.”

If you are emailing people, make sure you protect yourself. For instance, each communication should have an ‘unsubscribe’ option and the physical address of your restaurant included. For full information on spam laws, visit

Grant Lewers, from, also recommends building a solid database. But, “if you can’t get 100 people a week, it’s not worth your time. There’s no point making a great newsletter for four people.”

Which raises a very pertinent question: just how hard is it to make a newsletter? After all, running a restaurant doesn’t exactly leave you with oodles of spare time. Extremely busy operators may need to outsource doing their newsletter—even to a relative!

Still, Robyn Doyle from Doyle’s restaurants in Sydney doesn’t find the task overly tedious: “I put it together myself. It’s not hard at all. We all sit around and chat, and everyone comes up with ideas.”

Doyle’s has a database of over 8,000 people, which has taken around four years to build.  This primarily came from leaving data cards on the tables in her restaurants. They also ran successful promotions, such as ‘win a night’s accommodation at the Palace Hotel’, and an offer giving customers a bottle of Croser if they dined with four or more people on their birthday.

They continue to do birthday offers: “For example, we have people over in the UK who get their birthday email and they’ll say, ‘I’m coming over at the end of the year, can I use it then?’” says Doyle. “If we allow people that sort of flexibility, they’ll come next time they’re in Sydney.”

Make and model

According to Ken Burgin, there is a right way to format your newsletter.  “There’s a good case for a single A4 sheet with news on both sides, such as a brochure stand at the till. If it’s black and white on both sides, you can take it to Officeworks and do a thousand … people will take it away!”

A print newsletter can work well (and is a little easier to manage if you want to include photographs). On a quiet night, for example, you can have a waitress folding up 200 copies—and it may well bring in $1,000 of business. “Just get the thing out the door,” advises Burgin.

Don’t forget SMS, either. While this method is still used primarily by pubs to deliver a ‘what’s on’-type of communication to the under-40 market, the fact remains a lot of people have a mobile phone. Used prudently, this channel also can be highly effective.

Most restaurants these days send their newsletters via email. But, as spam blockers are getting tougher, the days of having lots of photos in an email are numbered. So the text has to do the work. Know the basics about email communication, and you’ll find it a very effective marketing tool.

Tips for emailing

If you’re sending out emails, don’t send them from your Outlook; rather, use an online service such as Constant Contact. This will not only handle any ‘unsubscribes’ and so on, but will let you track your responses. As people are bombarded with more and more emails, they naturally read less and less of them. A 25 per cent opening rate is considered good. Also, ensure the email is being sent from your business name—not your own.

Make your text short and to the point. No-one has the time or inclination to read through reams of information onscreen.  Remember, different screens may only have around 120 letters’ room (e.g., a Blackberry). “The critical space is above the ‘fold’,” says Burgin. “Keep your subject line and headline short, and perhaps have your header and secondary heading in coloured text. The headline and the first couple of sentences have to grab attention or no-one scrolls. If you’re waffling on, it’s a waste of space.”

Not too little, not too much

How often should you send out your newsletters? About once a month is considered ideal. You don’t want to bombard people on a weekly basis—that’s overkill—but every few months can be a bit too sparse. Most experts agree consistency is key. For example, you could try sending your emails around a ‘seasonal’ theme if you don’t want to do one every month.

Not everyone adheres to a rigid model, though; it depends on what works for you. Owner of Sydney’s Catalina, Judy McMahon, says, “We don’t send out email newsletters unless we’ve got something to say.”

McMahon, who currently has around 4,000 names on her database, collects data from forms left on the table. “We have a large clientele anyway. We don’t promote Mother’s Day or Christmas, because we’re always full!”

Because Catalina is a family-run business, their newsletter is more likely to include news about what family members have been up to. “My son went to Spain, and found some amazing jambon, so we put that in.”

What to say

Ideally, your newsletter will be made up of a combination of things that give a sense of the real people behind the business. In this way, your restaurant starts to become regarded as a ‘friend’.

Judy McMahon talks about what her family has been up to, but she may also include information about new menus or wine dinners the restaurant has planned. “If we’ve just made a major new purchase of wines from a private cellar, we’ll put that in. Even things like reminding people that we bake our own sourdough bread—and telling them to ask if they can have a spare loaf next time they’re in!”

There are stories all around you in a restaurant. There are hundreds of customers, and perhaps 10 or 20 staff—all of whom are doing interesting things. Get the camera out. Start small and put in little snippets of information. What is the chef doing? What  events are happening?

“Tell us one fun thing,” says Ken Burgin. “Or about one sensational ingredient. Don’t try and be too significant. It’s boring, and you’ll never get the newsletter out.” There’s so much to talk about with food.

“People love to get letters from celebrity chefs. Tony Bilson is a good example. His is a real foodie’s newsletter. So if you’re a foodie, you want to find out what he’s been up to,” notes Grant Lewers.

Basically, with newsletters it’s the same principle that applies when a customer walks in the door—give your customer what they want. This means sticking to the ‘personality’ of your restaurant, both in tone and content, and giving people a reason to want to read it. Would you like to read it yourself?

Done well, a newsletter is a very valuable means of developing the relationship between you and your customers. “The response is almost always positive,” says McMahon. “There doesn’t really seem to be a downside. I get so many emails back, saying ‘thanks so much—we can’t wait to come in!’”

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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