Opening a Restaurant: How to Host a Soft Opening

Opening a restaurant is a major event and not one to rush, particularly if you're a new owner or chef. Planning a soft restaurant opening days or weeks before a grand opening is an excellent way to work out all the kinks and ease your staff into full production mode, without overwhelming them or your budget beforehand.

Practice goes a long way to ensure a smooth launch. Because no two restaurants are the same, management and staff will need to learn a lot before the big day. Giving staff a chance to become familiar with the layout, menus and service before opening to the public will pay off with a more efficient and successful restaurant. A soft opening also allows extra time to train staff, perfect recipes and instruct servers on how to present and explain the menu. Keep these factors in mind when planning your soft launch.

Advertising

Don't worry about big advertising ventures just yet. The purpose of a soft opening is to allow time to iron out any wrinkles. If you must, you can send out Twitter and Facebook announcements to a select group of friends and colleagues. Guests will feel special and thus possibly more willing to be honest and constructive.

Guest List

Though they may not always be upfront with their opinions (for fear of hurting your feelings), invite family and friends to your soft opening to fill your restaurant with hungry people to practice on. Getting honest feedback and reviews, however, will most likely come from area business owners, friends-of-friends and people you don't know well. Be careful though: The point of hosting a soft opening is to give your owners, managers and staff adequate time to perfect food quality and dining service without having to worry about overenthusiastic Yelp reviewers, restaurant critics and local food bloggers picking your restaurant apart before you're ready. It's probably in your best interest to lie low on public social media before your big grand opening.

Pricing

Offering complimentary food and drinks during a soft opening can quickly drain your start-up budget. Another approach when opening a restaurant is to offer a free cocktail, a discounted meal or complimentary dessert to entice the crowd.

Food to Highlight

Opening a restaurant with a limited menu is a good option during a soft launch. Serving a few items in each course — soups, salads, appetizers, entrees and desserts — provides the staff and chef training practice, a chance to evaluate the meal and allows invited guests to taste test your menu. What you should offer depends on your restaurant's purpose:

  • Pub: A cocktail party may be more appropriate, especially if you plan to offer a bar-food-centric menu. Offering free drinks and appetizers will please your guests while at the same time provide training for bartenders and servers.
  • Bakery: A new bakery could serve free coffee and pastries so staffers can practice using front-of-house and back-of-house equipment while simultaneously gaining free publicity.
  • Full Restaurant: Sunday brunches are very popular with weekend crowds, and offer the chance to serve breakfast and dinner options. It may be helpful to try your newest recipes for lobster eggs Benedict or fried chicken out on guests and see what they think.
  • Coffee Shop: Train your baristas by having them craft free lattes and espresso while chatting up your guests.

There's no doubt about it — opening a restaurant is hard work, but it's a job that can be immensely rewarding. When properly planned, a smooth soft launch should help build pre-opening hype and excitement for your upcoming formal grand opening.

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