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Wednesday, June 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Restaurants using Web sites, e-mails to let you know what's cooking

Where to surf for that surf 'n' turf special


Many restaurants maintain Web sites. Here are those mentioned in this article:

Brasa: www.brasa.com

Canlis: www.canlis.com

Cascadia: www.cascadiarestaurant.com

Duke's Chowderhouse: www.dukeschowderhouse.com

Kaspar's: www.kaspars.com

Lombardi's Cucina: www.lombardiscucina.com

Mashiko: www.sushiwhore.com

'Ohana: www.ohanabelltown.com

Palisade: www.palisaderestaurant.com

Palomino: www.palomino.com

Ristorante Pellini: www.ristorantepellini.com

Sans Souci Bistrot: www.sanssoucibistrot.com

Schwartz Brothers Restaurants: www.schwartzbros.com

Szmania's: www.szmanias.com

You've gotten an e-mail from postman@
sushiwhore.com. Do you read it or delete it?

If you're a fan of West Seattle's Mashiko — where a live Web cam broadcasts a view of the sushi bar for Internet voyeurs — chances are you'll open it, knowing the message bears news you can use.

With more than 400 customers in its database, Mashiko has joined restaurants nationwide taking advantage of a new trend in marketing: the e-mail subscriber list. Those lists offer new and better ways to connect with customers. And for customers who sign-on, membership has its privileges.

Want to get in on the action? Google your favorite restaurant and see what's cooking. Many offer opportunities to sign up for e-mail (with promises that they'll maintain your privacy). Sign up and you may be the recipient of complimentary appetizers, desserts and other edible promotions, along with chatty newsletters touting upcoming events, plus recipes and tips from your favorite chefs.

At Mashiko, subscribers regularly receive early invites to sign up for sushi-making or sake-tasting classes, along with "breaking news" — such as happy-hour info or word on who will be spinning tunes at the restaurant.

"The Rewards Are in The Experience" one learns after signing up at www.palisaderestaurant.com, Web site for Magnolia's view restaurant Palisade. Recent rewards at this and other Restaurants Unlimited restaurants, such as Palomino, in City Centre, include a coupon entitling new subscribers to a $20 deduction off their dinner bill if they show up — e-mail print-out and photo ID in hand — within 30 days of joining. Schwartz Brothers Restaurants will soon offer frequent-diner benefits, among others already in place via www.schwartzbros.com. These may be redeemed at Daniel's Broiler, Chandler's Crabhouse, Spazzo Italian Grill and the Atrium Cafe.

Want a free birthday dinner? Correspond with your friend Duke Moscrip at www.dukeschowderhouse.com and join his e-mail club. Send him your friends' e-mail addresses, and he'll send you a "referral award" good for a free cup of chowder.

Looking to hoist the tiki torch and some pupus at a Polynesian-style birthday party? Sign up for the e-flier at www.ohanabelltown.com. As a subscriber you're invited to host a party where the guest of honor receives a complimentary lei and dessert plus a photo-op — the result of which may be viewed on 'Ohana's Web site photo-gallery.

"What I love about the whole (subscriber) thing is that people want to hear what is going on at Brasa," says co-owner Bryan Hill. "They know us and like us, so anything we talk about or want to promote falls on friendly ears — and hopefully gets passed on to their friends."

It's not always good news that restaurants and their fans are passing on.

Subscribers to e-mail from Fandango, Cassis and Bandol were among the first to know when those restaurant closures were announced (Cassis is scheduled to close June 20.)

"Who would have ever thought that a Web site would become so important to a restaurant?" asks Heidi Grathwol, co-owner of Cascadia, in Belltown. Her site, www.cascadiarestaurant.com, has been in place since 1999. Back then, as Grathwol describes it, it was "a simple Internet presence." Redesigned at great expense last year, it now gets hundreds of hits a day from all over the world.

"The redesign was meant to be highly interactive and informative, and most critically, as Web-users demand, up-to-date," says Grathwol. Current menus are available online, and any changes can be made immediately.

"Last Saturday we had a party call and pre-order their dinner because they had an event to attend and wanted to dine quickly. They saw the complete menu on our Web site and gave us a complex, multi-course order."

Seasonal newsletters, or direct mailings promoting special events, have long been a way for restaurants to keep in touch with their patrons. Grathwol, who formerly sent quarterly newsletters, now sends those letters as monthly e-mails in which design and content are finalized within hours of dissemination, allowing the restaurant to be flexible with special events. "We organized a wine dinner for June 10, less than two weeks before the event. This spontaneity would have been impossible before."

Grathwol adds that despite the expense of designing and maintaining a complex, layered Web site, the results are "very effective and worth every penny."

The cost of setting up a Web site, keeping it current and managing a subscriber's list ranges from next to nothing to tens of thousands of dollars.

Longtime waitress Yuko Hallberg built and maintains Mashiko's Web site. Brasa's site was built by Bryan Hill's sister ($0), its content is written by chef/owner Tamara Murphy ($0), and their monthly e-flier is designed and distributed by a local company whose cost is easily covered when a party of three wines and dines at Brasa. And while Cascadia's Web site was "a substantial investment," says Grathwol, maintaining an e-mail subscribers' list and sending newsletters via an Internet list-management company could cost as little as $20 to $30 per month.

"Dollar for dollar, it's the best money I spend advertising, says Jodi Bardinelli, co-owner of Sans Souci in Bellevue Place and Ristorante Pellini atop the Madison Renaissance Hotel. Her restaurants' Web sites each contain a link to the other, adding extra value for her advertising buck.

Duke Moscrip, owner of Duke's Chowderhouses at Lake Union, Green Lake and Alki Beach, is quick to agree. "E-mail is very inexpensive," he says. "We send to an audience that knows us versus an audience that has no affiliation, and we get a higher response." In years past he's spent a small fortune on snail-mail promotions. Today, his "e-mail club" answers his promo-prayers by not only bringing customers into his chowder houses but by encouraging their repeat business.

Moscrip's Web site enjoys upward of 400,000 hits a month, and its subscriber list, amassed over "five or six years," numbers a staggering 36,000, increasing by an average of 100 subscribers a day. "We get an 'open rate' of 50 percent," he says, describing the number of club members who view his monthly missives. So far this year, more than 3,000 have come into Duke's clutching e-mail-generated redemption offers. Clearly, the proof is in the chowder. "To get that same response with direct mail we would need to send six mailings of 50,000 pieces at $20,000 to $25,000 per mailing."

Offering free chowder isn't the only way to get online with patrons. Comment cards increasingly appear inside restaurant check-covers at meal's end, inviting diners to add their names — and e-mail addresses — to new or growing mailing lists.

Moving from the old snail-mail system to the new computer-generated correspondence can be a challenge. "We begged people to give us their e-mail addresses," says Nancy Donier, co-owner of Kaspar's on Queen Anne. Kaspar's mailing lists overlapped for about a year, she says, but they recently did away with postal mailings entirely. "We get reports after each e-mail newsletter is sent, so we can track the number sent, the number opened, and how many click-through bounces, forwards and new sign-ups we've had."

Customers aren't the only ones reluctant to give up the old for the new. Diane Symms, owner of Lombardi's Cucinas, was "dragged kicking and screaming" into the new technology. Doing the dragging was her daughter, Kerri Lonergan. Now Lombardi's comptroller, Lonergan and her degree in marketing and business administration — along with her Internet savvy — have helped her mother promote their trio of garlic-scented restaurants in Ballard, Issaquah and Everett.

"We have always used snail mail," says Symms, in business for 17 years. "But as it has become more expensive, the results are more difficult to justify. The cost of e-mail newsletters or special-event communications is substantially less, and we have achieved a higher percentage of returns or visits from our eNews." In addition, says Symms, "all our offers or promotions are tracked and compared for effectiveness."

Over more than half a century, Canlis has built a customer database of more than 30,000 names with postal addresses. And though www.canlis.com offers a link to its e-mail subscribers' list — now 10,000 members strong — it's the lengthy, poetry-laced newsletter, lovingly composed by Alice Canlis, typed on heavy stock and delivered to their door, that customers insist they still want. "There's something so elegant and personal about something you receive in the mail," says Tammy Heldridge, head of marketing and branding for Canlis. "We're not so sure we want to give that up."

Julie Szmania, of Szmania's restaurants in Magnolia and Kirkland, also chooses to keep her feet in both camps. She admires the Canlis newsletter while admitting hers are shorter and to the point.

"Alice Canlis has really thoughtful reflections in her newsletters. It's like listening to soft music." And while you can get that via the Internet, too, the melody loses some of its flavor in the transmission.

Nancy Leson can be reached at 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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