Ultimate Guide to Text Messaging for Restaurants

February 5, 2024
Read Time: Example Minutes

Everything Restaurants Need to Know About Text Message Marketing

If you’re not using SMS messaging to build your business, you’re missing out on one of the most effective marketing channels for restaurants. The average American checks the phone almost 100 times per day; unlocks it 150 times a day; and actually touches the device more than 2,000 times a day. And 91% of those well-connected users say that they are willing to opt-in to receive text messages from brands. However, for many restaurants, SMS, or text messaging, is a widely underutilized channel. This guide will teach you everything you need to know to change that.

What is text message marketing, and how does it apply to restaurants?

Text message marketing, also known as SMS marketing, is simply the act of sending a message to a specific set of opted-in subscribers. This type of messaging can be used by restaurants and their customers for a variety of purposes:

  • Make and update reservations
  • Place takeout orders instantly and easily
  • Manage curbside pickup
  • Let customers know when their table is ready
  • Promote new menus or items
  • Promotions and discounts
  • Make and update reservations
  • Daily special notifications
  • Interact with your Loyalty program

What makes text different from any other restaurant marketing channel?

When we refer to text message marketing as one of the most effective marketing channels, we aren’t saying that lightly. Text messages boast a 98% open rate, which is five times higher than email, the next most effective channel. What’s more, text messages aren’t just opened, they are acted on. SMS messages average a 45% response rate, which is something no other channel can claim. Plus, it’s instant – 80% of customers will read a business text within five minutes of receiving it. Those numbers alone should make text messaging a key consideration for your marketing strategy. It is also one of the only channels where everyone on it has asked to be there. It’s important to note that you need to get your customers’ specific permission or opt-in before you begin sending them texts. This isn’t just good business practice. It’s required by privacy laws. (You’ll also want to give them the option to opt-out, if only in the first message you send them.) This ability to join and depart at-will makes it particularly important to have a well-thought-out strategy that ensures that every communication provides value, so your customers remain engaged and happy to hear from you. Given the potential rewards, it’s well worth the effort.

Understanding the terminology

As with any type of marketing, text message marketing has its own commonly used terms and acronyms. It helps to have at least a basic understanding of some of the terms and what they mean before you dive in.


An SMS message is the original form of text message. The acronym stands for Short Message Service, and refers to a text-only message, with no images, audio, video or other form of multimedia. There are compensations for the lack of embellishment: SMS is a universal format that works well with any type of mobile phone, and uses a phone’s native messaging app and cellular network, which means that it looks the same for everyone, and isn’t likely to incur technical issues. All text messages should be brief, but with SMS it is essential as messages are limited to 160 characters.


The next level of text message is the Multimedia Messaging Service or MMS. Like an SMS, it uses a phone’s native messaging app and cellular network, but this format supports audio, pictures or other forms of multimedia. There is no character limit as every phone is different, but most phones are incapable of handling messages that are over 300 KB, so simplicity is still key.


The most elaborate message format is known as Rich Communication Services or RCS. It requires a data or Wifi connection and won’t work with every phone model or with compatible phones that are set up to prevent RCS communications. But RCS lacks in accessibility it makes up for in versatility and wow factor. It supports video, locations, transactions, video calling, live chats, and a lot more. It’s almost like combining the features of an app with the ease of a text message.


An opt-in is a text message where a customer gives your restaurant explicit permission to send them marketing messages. This is a legal requirement and is an essential first step before you send a guest any kind of promotional text.


A subscriber is a customer who has given you permission to receive your marketing messages.

Subscriber list

The database of all customers who have agreed to receive marketing messages is known as a subscriber list.


An opt-out is a text message sent by customers to a restaurant to inform them they no longer want to receive marketing messages. Restaurants are required to send opt-out instructions as part of the first text they send a customer. A typical way to handle this is adding the phrase “Reply STOP to unsubscribe.” at the end of the first message.

Short code

This refers to a 5 or 6 digit number that’s used in marketing to replace a standard 10-digit number as it’s easier to remember. An example of this is “Dial 56556 to get notified about future events.”

Long code

A long code is a standard 10-digit telephone number that can be used to send and receive SMS and MMS numbers.


A Uniform Resource Link (URL) is a link to a unique resource on the Web. This can be a page, a document, an image, a survey - anything you can find on a standard web link.

Short Link

Web links or URLs aren’t known for their brevity. Link shortening services were developed as a way to allow links to be included within standard text message character limits. URLs that have been shortened by using a link shortening service are known as Short Links. You might also hear them unofficially referred to as Bitlys after one of the oldest shortening services - bit.ly.

What benefits can text message marketing offer restaurants?

With a low cost of entry, it’s easy to implement an SMS marketing program in even smaller restaurants. However, there are almost as many uses for text message marketing as there are types of restaurants, so it’s important to have a strategy that will work for your specific need before you begin.

Low initial investment

Sending texts can cost as little as $.015 per text and are often available at a flat monthly rate based on a committed monthly volume.

High ROI

While there are many uses specific to the restaurant industry that are difficult to translate into one-to-one sales, texting is low cost and high reward, yielding an ROI of up to $8.11 per message across verticals.

It’s personal

Text is a communication format that is generally reserved for the people and things we truly care about. When someone allows you to text them, they are joining your restaurant’s family. That’s an incredibly powerful thing.

It’s immediate

Text someone, and you know they will see it right away. That allows you to implement strategies you couldn’t in any other form of media. Just got a delivery of a limited supply of something special? You can use text to offer it up to your best customers to reserve first. Has someone canceled a coveted reservation time last minute? Text can help you rebook it instantly and will make your subscriber list feel like VIPs in the process.

It’s the perfect testing lab

Your subscriber list is made up of your restaurant’s biggest fans and best customers as a rule, so if you’re not sure about whether an initiative will be successful, they are also your ideal focus group.

Thinking about adding a new dish to the menu, but not sure how it will go over? Offer it up to your subscriber list as a secret menu item first. If it succeeds with your biggest fans, then you’ll have a good idea whether it will intrigue your wider audience before you shell out for higher-priced broad-reach media.

Best practices for restaurant text message marketing

Your subscriber list is a valuable resource, but it’s also one that’s vulnerable. If you’re not mindful about the quality and frequency of your communications, you’ll find that customers will be quick to unsubscribe. Keeping some industry best practices in mind as you design your program will help ensure your subscriber list stays as robust as possible.

Keep it brief

Text communication is a medium where every word counts.(And as we mentioned above, SMS messages are limited to 160 precious characters.) While you want your texts to have personality, try not to use three so-so words where one great one will do. Plus, shorter communications are more memorable, so keep it succinct and you’ll have more impact.

Make it valuable

If you aren’t offering your customers something they will appreciate with every text, you’re not creating a text worth sending. This doesn't necessarily mean you must offer a discount or a free item necessarily; it might be along the lines of letting them know like a favorite dish that’s back on the menu or an event they might be interested in was just announced. When you send a text, you’re interrupting someone’s day, so make sure you make it worth their while every single time.

Make it easy to act

Every additional step that happens between your invite and the action you want a guest to take translates to a substantial drop-off in results. If you’re sending a text to invite your subscriber list to an event, being able to reserve your place with a simple text response will give you a better result than taking them to a web page where they have to input information you already have. For the best results, do your best to make converting as easy as possible on your guests.

Make it personal

Text is the most personal of mediums, so the more personal you make your approach, the better. Ideally, this will go beyond just using their name. With the right tech stack (such as Fishbowl GRM), you can segment your subscriber list by interest, value, habits, prior campaign engagement or any other useful data and insights. This makes it easy for you to ensure that every contact will be of value to them and will make your subscriber list more valuable to you as well.

Don’t overuse it

How often is too often can vary widely with the type of restaurant you are, the strategy you are using for your text message program and the tolerance of your individual customers. Asking yourself whether every message has value to the person you are sending it to should help ensure that you aren’t being excessive, but we’d recommend starting slow and increasing in frequency as you gain insights from tests, segmentation and engagement data.

Getting started with SMS messaging

Think through your strategy

As outlined at the beginning of this article, text message marketing can take a wide variety of forms. Will you be using text messages to make reservations and ordering seamless? As a promotional channel? Or some combination of the above? Taking the time to think through how you want to use text messaging in your operation will give you the best chance of success, and will make every decision you make after that easier.

Evaluate your current technology

Before you start looking for a tech partner, it’s important to understand the integration capabilities of your current tech stack. If being able to make text reservations is important to you, for instance, you need to understand whether your current reservation system can accommodate that kind of functionality, or whether you will need to upgrade to make that possible. Understanding what you want to accomplish and what your current tech can do will help make choosing the right SMS technology simpler.

Build a subscriber list

There are a lot of techniques for building your subscriber list. You could put an invite with a short code on the bottom of every receipt that offers an incentive for joining; or use a QR or short code on your menu or on a table tent. If your system allows it, you can also add a join option when someone makes a reservation with their phone number.. You can even subscribe guests to your text messaging when they log into your on-premise Wifi.

However, before you start thinking through techniques to build your list, it might be helpful to look at it from your customers’ perspective. Because text is an interruptive medium, it’s important to ensure every text offers your guests something of value. If you’re a QSR, maybe that’s a discount on an order. But if you’re a high-end restaurant, it might be exclusive access to an event, reservation time or special dish. Thinking through the benefits from a customer point of view will also help you imagine unique ways to promote your subscriber list beyond just a free appetizer, and that will also help you reinforce the value of your restaurant’s brand.

Choosing the right SMS tech partner

Restaurants are like no other business, and we’d advocate choosing a text messaging solution that’s built by a company who understands the unique needs of restaurant marketing. That will save you a lot of time wading through features built for other types of industries and trying to explain to reps why their one-size-fits-all solutions don’t fit your needs.

Choose a partner that plays well with others

Dealing with technical integration issues can cost you in time, energy and customer frustration. To avoid all that, choose a partner that integrates seamlessly with not just your existing tech stack, but with a wide variety of restaurant software platforms, so that, if your business needs and technology shift, you can change course without breaking a sweat.

Choose a partner that's easy to work with

All the features in the world won’t help you if it’s impossible to learn how to use them. Make sure your tech partner offers an easy-to-use interface, a robust support library and a real human that is there when you have questions or an issue.

Choose a partner that gives you actionable insights

Reports and analysis are key to ensuring that you can quickly and easily evaluate what strategies are working and what aren’t. Choose a partner who helps you evaluate the results of every initiative in real-time, across platforms with a wide variety of reporting tools.

Choose technology that will grow with you

As your skills with SMS marketing grow, chances are you’ll find new ways to use it that you hadn’t considered initially. That’s why it’s best to choose a partner who offers a wide range of features you can access. Partners with robust features also tend to be quick to onboard new cutting-edge technologies, so you’ll always be able to stay one step ahead of your competition.

Choose technology that will grow with you

As your skills with SMS marketing grow, chances are you’ll find new ways to use it that you hadn’t considered initially. That’s why it’s best to choose a partner who offers a wide range of features you can access. Partners with robust features also tend to be quick to onboard new cutting-edge technologies, so you’ll always be able to stay one step ahead of your competition.

Choose a partner that’s reputable

Text message marketing is subject to an array of ever-shifting privacy laws and ethical considerations. Picking a partner that’s well known and trusted in the industry will help you ensure that you’re always in compliance with current regulations.

Ready to take the next step? Meet Fishbowl GRM.

If you’re looking for the ultimate text message marketing tech partner, we’d love to introduce you to Fishbowl GRM.

Created by restaurant industry experts with more than two decades of experience in restaurant marketing, data analysis, segmentation and technology, Fishbowl GRM offers all the features we’ve outlined above, and a whole lot more.

Visit us to learn more.

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Adam Ochstein
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