How to Make More of Your Restaurant Opening
How to Make More of Your Restaurant Opening: The Benefits of a Soft Opening
The restaurant industry is constantly changing, from the challenges imposed by increasing costs, rents and rates, to the way dishes are designed and implemented, to the way food is discussed in the media and with customers at large.
For a new Restaurant Owner, making that crucial first impression is more important than ever. Your initial wave of interest will depend on how you’ve marketed and advertised your venue, and when you open your doors, customers are already going to have an idea of what they’re expecting. Putting together a perfect opening service that fulfils those expectations and gives your customers the desire to keep returning is the goal.
But launching into a Grand Opening with no real-life service practice or testing of the menus can place a lot of pressure on you and your staff. Nerves, teething issues and just generally getting overwhelmed can make the Grand Opening a lot harder than it needs to be.
This is why more and more restaurant owners and operators are opting to open with a Soft Launch first.
What is a Soft Opening? Isn’t it Better to Just Get the Restaurant Open?
A Soft Opening is a smaller scale event before your Grand Opening that allows you to test the concept of the restaurant, the food and services, and gain valuable feedback before bringing in the general public.
It acts as a sort of dress rehearsal and can also provide another layer of promotional opportunities. Guest lists vary from location to location, but generally Soft Openings are attended by friends and family, Industry Influencers and sometimes members of the Press.
Who you invite will depend on your confidence level. If your staff are relatively new and haven’t had the opportunity to fully train in the kitchen or with any special techniques you apply, then you may not want to bring in Influencers and the Press.
However, if you’re relatively confident that your staff can handle the menu and your front of house team are prepared for a smooth service, bringing in Press and Influencers for a ‘sneak peak’ can offer unique coverage that you may not otherwise get.
You may feel that you just want to get your restaurant open as soon as possible and that you need to start bringing in customers to pay the bills. But it’s essential that you don’t rush things – you’re building the foundations of your business and you want to make sure it lasts.
Here are Three Good Reasons Why a Soft Opening Could Work for Your Restaurant:
Practicing Your Service will Help You Perfect Your Restaurant
- Restaurants are complicated machines, there are a ton of moving parts and it’s essential that the Front of House (FoH) and Back of House (BoH) can work together smoothly – the orders need to be delivered at a pace that isn’t going to overwhelm the kitchen, the chefs need to plate the dishes and send them out before they get cold, and the customers don’t want to be left on a wait between courses. Even if you’ve got a team who are used to working with each other, this is a brand new environment with a new menu and possibly a different Point of Sale (PoS) system. By having a practice run with real customers, the team can work out how they all fit together, iron out any issues with the processes, resolve conflicts and get those plates out to finish the night with happy diners. A Soft Opening acts as a controlled environment, you can watch what’s going on, what works and what doesn’t and make the adjustments you need to get your team running smoothly.
You Have the Opportunity to Gain Genuine Feedback in a Closed Environment
Time, money, effort and sheer dedicated hard work has been poured into getting your restaurant to this stage, by having a Soft Opening you’ve got the opportunity to fine-tune your concept. The customers that attend will test your menu, service, overall idea and give their opinions on the restaurant as a whole. They will let you know what they thought of the food and how your FoH managed – if you stagger the guest arrival time, you can also artificially stimulate lull and rush times to see how the Staff spend their time and cope with the demands placed upon them. If a particular dish doesn’t meet customer standards, or something is being ignored totally – you can consider adjusting the menu or speaking with the Chef to determine a solution.
All this can be done without the general public becoming aware of these issues and having it influence their opinion. Your staff may also have ideas on how to organise the dining room, kitchen or ordering process once they’ve had a chance to test it out. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain working insights and make the restaurant more efficient and easier to work in.
Generate a Buzz Around Your Restaurant
Marketing doesn’t start when you open your doors.
Before your restaurant opens you need to be building up a buzz, giving people an idea of what is coming and a rough time frame so they can start to get excited and make plans to visit you.
There are a lot of different options available to you including:
– Advertising in printed media (such as local newspapers)
– Other Media (such as Local Radio)Word of mouth, and it’s digital equivalent Click of Mouse are particularly effective and can help drive traffic towards your restaurant.
When you conduct a soft opening, you can build buzz, enthusiasm and excitement for the full opening by giving people the opportunity to step inside your restaurant and try your food before anyone else.
The size of your restaurant will determine what sort of events you can put on, how many people you can invite, and the type of marketing tactics you adopt.
When doing a soft opening there are different things you can do for different sized establishments:
For larger venues (up to 250 seats), you have the opportunity to make full use of the space in a variety of creative ways, especially if you have sectioned off areas for private dining.
Consider having a launch party with bite-sized passed service, cocktail-style food service or a family-style platter so your guests can mingle and really get a feel for what the whole restaurant looks like.
Generally, up to about 60 seats, the opportunities in these restaurants will depend on your layout, food type and theme. But you should think about offering practice dinner services and family-style dinners to get your staff used to having an influx of full tables.
Quick Service Restaurants
Since quick service venues have menus consisting of lower-priced dishes, it’s not cost-effective or sensible to offer free food. In this case, it is better to offer discounts or meal-deals that give the customer value, but don’t negatively impact your bottom line. Consider pairing an item that you have a good profit margin on with cheaper items, such as a Deluxe Burger with a portion of fries and soft drink – you will still break even or make a profit, but your customer will see that they’ve saved money and got a great deal.
This is a fantastic way to spread the word to people in the local area who are most likely going to be your regulars.
Deciding on a Soft Opening Format for Your Restaurant
How you handle your Soft Opening will depend on your size, needs and location. There’s no need to confine yourself to just one date if, for example, you have a large staff that would generally work different shifts (such as mornings and evenings) then it doesn’t make sense to try and force everyone together to run a service that wouldn’t happen in real life. The point of the soft opening is not just to build excitement and marketing prospects (although obviously this is part of it), it’s to give your staff an opportunity to work together and with the equipment.
Having more than one soft opening can let you try new things, experiment with different menu items, discover which teams work best where, and identify issues that would affect a real service.
If you need more time for your opening to be a success, then take that time.
Try having several different sorts of opening events, held over a one to two week period. You could start with a private affair for friends and family, move on to exclusive invite-only dinners, media and Influencer events, and then shift to public events with a limited menu.
This slow approach may feel that it’s too long and expensive, but it’s far better to take your time and use your budget carefully now than to rush it and end up with an expensive disaster on your hands later.
Some examples of events that you might want to try could be:
Friends and Family Night
As the name would suggest, this event is only open to friends and family. It’s important that you thank them all for attending and remind them that it is a closed event, that you’re still in the setting up phase and that you genuinely appreciate honest feedback – there’s no point holding an event if everyone just tells you it’s wonderful and doesn’t mention issues that could hurt your business later!
This type of event is great if you’re experimenting with new dishes, trying out different seating arrangements or training brand new FoH staff.
Influencers and Media Event
This type of event should not be undertaken until you have confidence that the service will run smoothly. By inviting food bloggers, influencers and local media along to your restaurant for a preview, you’re giving genuine future customers a look at what you do.
These people will go away and write or talk about your restaurant, so it’s essential that you give them the type of experience you’re going to be offering as standard.
Events for Local Customers
There are benefits to having a Soft Opening event that brings in people you don’t necessarily know personally – they have no reason to give you anything other than the truth, and will evaluate your venue based on the genuine needs of a real customer.
You can take this type of event and branch out with it. Invite local representatives, business owners, and community officials. This will help you begin to create a network within the community or strengthen your existing one. No restaurant operates in isolation, by showing appreciation to these people, you’re laying the groundwork for potential help, advice or custom in the future.
When creating a local event, your guest list should consist mostly of people you’ve invited, but it’s important to leave some spaces for walk-ins; if someone approaches your restaurant and wants to try it, let them! They’ll fondly remember a good meal even if the service turns out to be a little shaky, whereas if you turn them away, they’re not going to associate anything but an unpleasant memory with your venue.
At these events, you need to consider your margins and costs, but discounts of between 30 and 50% is generally appropriate.
Events Open to the General Public
Some restaurants do open their soft launch events to the general public in order to generate buzz and pre-first day sales.
If you’re confident in your menu, service and skills, then it’s well worth doing. However it’s also important that your guests are given the ability to provide you with feedback (such as How Are We Doing review cards) and they are made aware that this isn’t the Grand Opening – otherwise, you may end up with someone going onto their social media and complaining if things went wrong.
At the end of the day, you get one chance to make a first impression when you open your doors for real. By utilising soft opening techniques, you’ve got the chance to determine how that first impression is going to go, and how excited people are going to be beforehand.