What’s the difference between a film premiere and a restaurant opening? “At a film opening, you’re showcasing a finished product, while at a restaurant opening, you’re just getting started,” said New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. “And nobody gets everything perfect the first time.” That’s why Wolf often advises having a soft opening to work out the kinks.
A soft opening can differ from one restaurant to another. For some businesses, it means quietly opening their doors without any advertisements or fanfare; for others, it’s hosting a Friends and Family Night or a charity event that provides valuable practice before opening to the general public. “The type of opening really depends on the time of the year, where you are located and who you are,” said Wolf. If a soft opening doesn’t work into your plans, find another way for your staff to practice, like having half your employees serve the rest.
Here is a look at how two restaurants served up their soft openings.
A slow rollout
Central Food in Spokane, Washington opened “without a website, without advertising, without a sign on the door,” said chef and owner David Blaine. With the community already abuzz about Blaine launching a new restaurant, he kept opening day quiet. “If there’s a big splash and people are lined up at the door, you’re not going to be able to take the time to speak with customers,” he said.
To ease staff into the routine, Central Food operated limited hours opening week, offering only breakfast and lunch the first four days and only dinner on the fifth day. “I like going a little slow at the beginning,” said Blaine. “The staff isn’t as efficient at first.”
Items were offered at regular menu prices. “Having my staff cook up a lot of free food doesn’t appeal to me.”
The restaurant offered a limited menu at first to simplify operations. For example, three sandwiches appeared on what was labeled the “Beta” menu, and they eventually added more. Blaine rolled out menu items over a six-week period and trained servers to encourage customers to return later to see the full offerings.
Freebies for friends and family
San Diego’s Blind Burro took a different tact for its soft opening, offering three nights of complimentary food to friends and family. At an intimate “sneak peek” happy hour, servers brought out select menu items and drinks. “We invited people to join us in training our staff,” said managing partner Frank Miller, who made it clear to invitees that this was not the time for comments about service or not-yet-complete decor, but for staff to practice their menu knowledge and food and drink production.
A week later, the restaurant was prepped for the next step: full service for 100 invitees on each of two Friends and Family Nights. “We offered the full menu,” said Miller. “We wanted to do it 100 percent. There’s no sense in offering five out of 20 items, because we won’t do that when we’re open.” Miller estimates that the three nights cost a total of at least $20,000. “Everyone is banking on the place being a success, so the short-term cost is worth the long-term investment.”
The soft opening helped him iron out countless details. “The host stand and POS terminal were on the wrong side. There were too many people on the line at the wrong times, not enough people behind the right bar,” said Miller, whose team stationed notepads throughout the restaurant for staff to jot down any issues.
“Several years ago, when I opened a nightclub/bar in Louisiana, I was the guy who didn’t want to spend money on a Friends and Family Night.” The result: an inefficient opening night with less than stellar food and performance. “Having a soft opening is definitely worth it,” said Miller. “You just can’t wing it when it counts.”