You've installed your kitchen equipment, trained your staff and designed your menu. However, you still may not be completely ready to open to the general public and run your restaurant smoothly enough to earn the stellar reviews you need. It's time to put on a soft opening, get some practice and start generating buzz.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
What's a soft opening? It's an opening event for a select audience that shows off your new restaurant with the understanding that you haven't fully launched yet, and you're still working out some of the kinks.
Your Soft-Opening Purpose
You may be staging your soft opening to give your front-of-house and back-of-house employees a chance to make mistakes and refine their timing. You can plan your soft opening as a safe opportunity to achieve this objective, provided that you invite the right crowd. Friends and family are most likely to be forgiving. Reviewers and food critics will almost certainly be harder on you, so you should wait until you're more confident before you invite them to sample your offerings.
Alternatively, you may be interested in showing off your dining room and your menu to impress the people who will make it possible for your restaurant to get off to a strong start and draw crowds from the outset. This strategy makes sense if you're employing seasoned professionals or if you've had a leisurely time frame to train your crew.
More Reasons for a Soft Opening
Your soft opening may also be targeted toward building relationships in your community and bringing in partner organizations and neighboring businesses. If this is your main objective, your soft-opening strategy should be geared toward generosity and camaraderie. Be liberal with your food and drink and either be available personally as a congenial host or hire the right person to do the job.
Your soft opening will most likely be geared toward achieving all of these purposes, and you can plan and organize it accordingly. You can schedule multiple seatings to serve each of your target markets, or you can spread out your soft-opening events over days and even weeks. Plan a sequence of meals that makes sense for your strategies, such as practicing on your friends and loved ones before inviting the audience you want to impress.
Your Soft-Opening Announcement
Putting the word out about your soft opening is a delicate matter. On one hand, you want to reach the right people. On the other hand, your soft opening probably won't be an event that is open to the general public because if it were, it would be a full-fledged launch. You may not want to post a conspicuous soft-opening sign unless your event is geared toward bringing in as many people as possible and then scrambling to make sure they're fed.
- Target the right crowd. Who do you most want to know about your opening? Choose your audience carefully. You may want to bring in influencers who are also friendly faces or friends and family who will be forgiving when you make the inevitable mistakes. Define the objectives for your soft opening before making the announcement and then tailor the text and design to fit.
- Choose your medium. You may choose to announce your soft opening via email, or you may opt for snail mail or even phone calls. Whatever medium you use, it should reflect the personality of your new restaurant and your aims for the event. If you're inviting people in your close circle and are cultivating a safe atmosphere where you can stumble on your learning curve, phone calls may be perfect. If you're going for a more formal feel, an elegant mailed invitation could be appropriate.
- Include essential information. Naturally, you'll need to provide the date and time for your soft opening as well as whether additional guests are permitted and whether a certain type of attire is encouraged. Also include information about the type of menu you'll serve, such as whether it will be a full meal or a limited appetizer spread. You may also want to add a note about what guests should expect, especially if your staff is still learning the ropes.
Your Soft-Opening Menu
Of course, the menu you choose for your soft opening should reflect your style and the dishes that you'll be serving once your operation is fully open. However, because the soft opening is a practice flight, you can simplify your offerings for the event to navigate the learning curve and avoid giving away the store.
If you choose to offer the full menu, it's prudent to limit the number of guests you plan to serve at once. You won't be able to control this once your restaurant officially opens unless you enforce a strict reservations-only policy, but you will be able to regulate it at your soft opening by limiting the number of invitations or staggering the times you invite them to arrive. Staggering the seating also gives your staff a chance to practice and understand the timing of turning over tables throughout an evening.
If you choose to limit your soft-opening menu, adapt your offerings to the group you'll serve. You can offer your easiest and most popular items to friends, family and neighborhood businesses, but you may want to choose impressive signature items when you invite the press. A limited menu is easier to execute, so it will help build your staff's confidence and increase the odds that things will go reasonably smoothly. However, you do want your staff to be somewhat challenged, or you won't achieve the objective of preparing them for opening day.
Your Soft-Opening Pricing
As with all other aspects of your soft opening, your pricing strategy should reflect the goals you wish to achieve for each of the groups you invite and for the event as a whole. You could make the event completely free. This will generate considerable goodwill unless your staff is slow and clumsy, and your food is unpalatable. However, a free event won't help you to cover your costs or generate revenue in the short term, although it may be great for longer-term marketing.
If you charge full price for your soft-opening menu, you should be especially generous with your portions and even offer freebies such as drinks or gifts. Unless you're an established celebrity with an enthusiastic audience clamoring to get in the door of your next venture, the people who attend your soft opening are in some degree giving you the benefit of the doubt. They're coming to try your food with the explicit understanding that your menu and your systems still need some work. It makes sense to reward them for taking this leap of faith.
Learn everything you can from your soft opening. After all, that's one of the main reasons for holding it in the first place. Solicit feedback from your guests about everything from your menu to your wine list to your customer-service style. This feedback can take the form of informal conversations or paper or online questionnaires. However you receive this information, you should hear it with humility, gratitude and grace.
Meet with your staff to go over your soft-opening lessons. Ask for their feedback and their ideas for making improvements with recipes and systems. Integrate this insight, practice a bit more and then open your restaurant with confidence.
Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.