"We opened our first restaurant on August 4th 1995, and in the beginning we were really failing. It was a scary first few months. We knew we had to do promotions," says California Tortilla Co-Owner Pam Felix.
When another restaurant's owner suggested she start a newsletter as a promotional tactic, Felix launched 'Taco Talk' the very next month. "I steal smart," she says, "I steal everything!"
Felix had never written a newsletter before, and back then there were not many examples for her to steal ideas from. She was on her own.CAMPAIGN
Felix knew nobody would bother to read her newsletter
unless it was useful. "There's got to be something in it for the person. I don't open anything anybody sends me that just tells me about themselves." Free and discount offers were essential.
But free offers are not enough to stand out in the crowd. Felix
wanted to build brand loyalty to her newsletter, and by association to the restaurant, by giving it a distinct personality.
In addition to California Tortilla, Felix is also a Co-Owner of The Improv comedy club. Although she is not a professional comic herself, she knows what makes people laugh. That became the big idea: To write a monthly newsletter that is so entertaining that people love it, pass it along to friends, and revisit the restaurant frequently.
This did not make writing it easy though. Felix, who is now on her 73rd consecutive issue, says, "It's the bane of my existence! It takes anywhere from four-eight hours per issue." She has created a list of rules to help the process:
Rule #1: Keep a binder of back issues at your side
Before starting each issue, Felix leafs through her binder to get
herself into the mindset, and personality of the newsletter. "It
helps me get into the mode."
Rule #2: Keep words, articles, and issues brief
"Brevity is the soul of wit," says Felix. It also makes email
issues easier to read on the screen. She uses short words
whenever possible because the goal is not to look smart, but to
get read. She also limits stories to "not a lot of paragraphs."
Rule #3: Have regular features in the line-up
Every issue (link to sample below) includes:
- A leading feature article that is about half a page long (3-4
short paragraphs) on a topic that's "good all month" so
customers do not glance at it and assume the rest of the content
is too dated to read.
- A special offer such as 'Freezer Pop Day'
- A calendar of weekly Burrito specials
- An article with a list of bullet points because "People love
lists." This month's issue has a list of reasons how
California Tortilla is different from competitors owned by big
corporate chains. Reason #1, "The original founders of Pam and
Alan's chain are not dead (Alan and I find this very
- A customer of the month profiled
- A statistic. "People love statistics. You always have to
have one." This month's, "At one point at last month's Yappy
Hour, 50% of the dogs on Bethesda's patio had thrown up."
Occasionally Felix takes a quick break from the formula with a
special issue. These have included a story about her business
partner's wedding ("People really responded to that"); funny lists of Q&As about the restaurant ("Of course I make up all the questions; I put my friends' names in there"); and, her ultra-popular End of
Year Awards issue ("I give out awards for 'Most Improved Customer',
'Worst Special,' a whole big list. Everyone reads it because
they are hoping to see their name in there").
In addition to the regular newsletter, which is sent out on the
first day of every month that is not a Friday, Saturday or Sunday
(Felix hopes to get a lot of pass-along from office readers, and
knows that works best Monday-Thursday), Felix also sends out one or two special alerts each month.
She tries to make these as creative as possible, and give a fun
reason for the special. For example, she will often send out a "Rainy
Day" offer for free chips and salsa if you say the secret password
only available to email readers.
At the very start back in 1995 the newsletter was a printed hand-
out, but Felix wanted to gather a customer list so she very quickly
moved to fax format and finally to email about 18 months ago. Email
is by far her favorite format. "You click one button and it's
delivered to 5,000 people."
To gather names for the list, Felix inserts printed flyers into
every single bag of take-out (California Tortilla is mostly a "quick
service" restaurant). Everybody who signs up for the list gets a
Felix knew from her experience at The Improv that asking people to
handwrite their emails is a terrible idea. "We realized we could
never read them when people wrote them." Instead the flyers
initially asked customers to send an email to an account that would
sign them up. This spring, Felix changed this to asking customers
to visit her Web site's home page and sign up in the box there.
Felix says the newsletter "definitely" raises sales plus, "even more importantly, because I do the newsletter I'm
forced to think of promotions every month because I have to have
something to write about."
'Taco Talk' has an astonishingly high 50% average open rate (most
promotional email newsletters we profile are in the 30s and low 40s)
which proves the humorous editorial is working. Plus, about 10% of
readers click on at least one of the links in each issue (again an
unusually high rate).
Additional interesting data:
- Since beginning to collect email addresses 18 months ago, Felix
now has about 5,000 opt-in subscribers.
California Tortilla's three locations serve a total of about 2,400
people a day. There was a big first wave of sign-ups from regulars,
which then slowed to about 90 per week. When Felix changed her opt-in process from an email address customers had to send an email to, to a form on her home page, her opt-ins grew to an average 150-200 per week.
(Which proves our long-held contention that it is not enough to give
an email address or a link on your home page for sign-ups; put a
box there that people can type their email into!)
- Those rainy day 'Secret Password' email alerts work incredibly
well. "Each restaurant gets about 200 people. We used to be dead
on rainy days."
- Felix gets about 50 emailed notes from subscribers per month that
she happily responds to. "That's really fun."
Sample 'Taco Talk' issue:
NOTE: Proving that yes, we do indeed read and respond to our reader email, this Case Study was suggested by subscriber Barbara Kaplowitz. If you think we should do a Case Study about a particular outstanding email or online marketer, nominate them by emailing us at email@example.com. Thanks!