Typically, when restaurant owners are thinking about opening the doors to a new place, they're exploring ways to build excitement among customers and the media and get new faces in the door.
Many restaurants owners find benefit in hosting a soft opening: A limited, invite-only unveiling of your restaurant for friends, family, colleagues, and other close acquaintances.
These are smaller, free events with a hand-picked guest list where you have the option of making the full menu available or serve certain appetizers, drinks, and meals that are fundamental to the menu. It's a curated experience special to this one night that tests your operations and showcases the best you've got.
But during the time of COVID-19, as restaurants around the U.S. are preparing to reopen, applying a "soft opening" approach to your "reopening" can give you more control over the new variables you need to take into account: things like capacity limits and additional health and safety concerns.
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Why Have a Soft Opening?
Restaurants of all concepts can benefit from hosting a soft opening — either before their full grand opening or during a "reopening." We asked around, and here are the four big reasons why restaurant owners choose to host soft openings at their restaurant.
1. Build Hype
Soft openings act as a preview to the real deal, so your customers can help generate free publicity and awareness for the proper opening set to occur later.
Allowing guests to tell their friends and social media followers about their exclusive look at the best new restaurant in town can drum up interest when you’re ready to officially open.
During the time of COVID-19, a soft opening can encourage customers to feel comfortable dining with you and squash any concerns about your safety procedures.
Reality TV star Kathy Wakile went the extra mile with her Italian restaurant’s soft opening – allowing dine in, takeout, and delivery. If you have the staff capacity for it, going all out on these methods would spread awareness as well.
The Wait is Over! Who's Hungry? @pizzalove_201 PizzaLove's kitchen is heating up & testing our menu! Stop in and have a bite during our soft opening! Dine in Take out Delivery 201-891-6666 @pizzalove_201 #pizzalove #pasta #sandwiches #salads #byob
A post shared by Kathy Wakile (@kathywakile) on Sep 25, 2017 at 10:47am PDT
2. Create Future Revenue
Soft openings are a great way to set yourself up for a temporary revenue stream down the line. Hand out coupons for certain discount percentages, BOGO deals, or other offers that are good for a specific date or block of dates in the future.
If your guests enjoy their free experience, they’ll certainly be willing to return with money in hand, and might even become a regular. They’ll also have something tangible to give to friends when talking about the restaurant, an incentive for them to take a risk on a new place and check it out.
It even works for the big chains: People were looking forward to returning to this Jackson, Michigan Buffalo Wild Wings location after their successful soft opening.
3. Preseason Practice
The restaurant soft opening is also a fantastic way to train employees and prepare them for business without sabotaging their tip potential. They’ll learn the ins and outs of your restaurant’s specific procedures and best practices, without actual paying customers to worry about.
Additionally, if any of the processes aren’t working to their full potential, like order input and output, POS systems, or inventory management, this is a perfect time to retool before customers get their official first taste. It’s also an opportunity for you as an operator to see what’s working efficiently and what isn’t. Maybe the cooking time is too long, or methods too complicated for certain dishes; perhaps there can be furniture re-arrangements to maximize space and exit lanes for both servers and customers.
Georgette Frakas of Rotisserie Georgette knows the value of soft opening practices. "With all the people involved," she says, "I made sure to constantly reassert that message: This is about training."
How to Do a Restaurant Soft Opening
Now that you've heard why restaurateurs run soft openings, let's go about how to do one.
1. Offer a Limited Menu
Your soft opening might be more manageable if you consider only offering select entrees, appetizers, drinks, and desserts from the menu. After all, there’s less mental preparation to worry about when only a few items are being prepped, cooked, and poured.
There are certainly benefits to having the full menu available, though. Patrons might develop an immediate favorite you didn’t expect to be received so well, and plan to come back soon to have it again.
2. Focus on Feedback
Guests can provide valuable feedback for all aspects of the business, from the food to the service to even the environment.
“[Soft openings] can endear people to feel more alignment with the restaurant because they feel they’re in the know,” says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen. Soft openings can be used not only to practice but also to help people connect with the restaurant.”
At the end of the night, kindly ask guests to fill out a questionnaire in exchange for their free meal. It’s a great way to get outside perspective after working strictly with employees, managers, and independent contractors to get things up and running. Since your guests will predominantly be colleagues and friends, they likely want to see you succeed, and should be willing to provide actual constructive feedback for the restaurant moving forward.
3. Find the Red Flags
What are the downsides of a soft opening? The benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks, but there are things to consider.
You want to ensure your guests have a good time and share their experiences online to spread awareness, but you do run the risk of competing restaurants stealing your creative property – whether that be menu items, ideas for decor pieces, or even table-and-chair arrangements. A competitor might already be open and able to fast-track it to public availability, beating you to the punch on opening day.
Don’t forget that real customers can be far more brutal than friends. There’s the chance your soft opening guests will be hesitant to criticize, so when real customers come through the door for the grand opening, there may be some reality checks in order. Ensure that after the feedback process, there isn’t anything that hasn’t been overlooked by either your own staff or the soft opening’s guests.
There’s also the aspect that your restaurant is operating to some degree without actually generating revenue. The soft opening is essentially optional overhead, a marketing expense that offers little in the short-term. While that may be true, you should view the soft opening as a long-term investment, where you're building awareness and possibly future business, making it fiscally low-risk, but medium-to-high-reward.
Launching Your Restaurant Soft Opening
There’s considerable upside to doing a soft opening. The benefits can act as a confidence boost for when the grand opening comes and the proper public makes their way in. You’ll have an advantage that will set things up for success right out of the gate.