Dry run, practice round, dress rehearsal: in the restaurant business, a pre-opening service is called a restaurant soft opening, or simply a "soft open." It can be instrumental in working out the kinks before unlocking the doors for good.
So why not just call these event trial-rounds, and get on with it? Well, restaurants are special (duh) and so their pre-launch approach is a little special, too. Some of the key elements of a restaurant soft opening:
These typically free, one-night-only events give staff a chance to run through operations without the pressure of paying customers.
(*About that asterisk: In the past 5-10 years, publicists have turned the wisdom of closing restaurant soft opens to media on its head somewhat, instead opting to use it as an exclusive opportunity to showcase the space to influential journalists and bloggers. Your mileage may vary, but a friendly word of advice: just because your PR person says you have to run your soft opening that way, doesn't mean you do. After all, it's your restaurant!)
Soft openings are usually the purview of new restaurants, used as a runway to prepare both sides of the house for the grand opening, show investors the fruits of their backing, and so forth.
But older restaurants can do soft openings too: if your business has been around for years, and has recently been shuttered due to uncertain times, undergoing a soft-opening can help get things rolling again as restaurants adjust to navigate new health and safety regulations.
Oh man, so many reasons! Restaurant soft openings give you a chance to...
Find logistics that need ironing out: Whether it’s adjusting to new seating capacity or the customer flow, a soft-opening can give you a chance to tweak your systems before the restaurant officially reopens.
Get feedback from potential customers: Sure a soft-opening is generally limited to close family and friends, but who better to give you honest opinions on everything from menu items to restroom cleanliness. Use the opportunity to collect comments on everything from the initial greeting to check delivery.
Spotlight standout details: You can’t buy worth-of-mouth buzz—though many have tried. A soft-opening is a golden opportunity to showcase the food and beverage that differentiates you from other restaurants in the area, and get people excited about yours.
(Again, whether those people are your friends and family posting to their own feeds, or media professionals who've been invited by your publicist, is something you'll need to work out.)
Dial in dishes: Running your restaurant through a soft opening can give the back-of-house valuable time and feedback to fine-tune your menu offerings before opening things up to the general public.
Stagger multiple soft-openings to run trials on different services: For restaurants that offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner, multiple soft-openings allow teams to perfect each service on different days. It also gives restaurants a chance to expose more guests to new options before reopening.
Unlike your grand opening, which you'll presumably want to shout from the rooftops, you'll want to be a bit more tactical when heralding your restaurant's soft opening. After all, not everyone's invited. So!
Invite those you know: A soft opening is probably not the time to invite your city’s restaurant critic. Instead, invite friends and family who will be more forgiving of first time foibles, but still provide constructive criticism. And remember to keep the invite list intimate so that staff can handle the number of guests while delivering the best service possible.
Make the invitations crystal-clear: Are you comping meals for everyone? Or can soft opening guests order a la carte? The etiquette here is critical. Whatever you choose, save face by leaving no room for ambiguity. No one likes to have to ask whether or not they need to pay. Also, be sure to mention dress code, time, date, and an RSVP so you can prepare for the right numbers.
Encourage guests to share the news: In addition to gathering feedback, a soft opening is a great way to encourage friends and family to spread the word that you’re opening or reopening. Give them some incentive by inviting them to post to social media or fill out a comment card at the end of their meal.
Ultimately, a soft opening can be an invaluable dress rehearsal for a restaurant before an official launch date. Choose your guests wisely and use the feedback to your advantage and it may provide just the information you need to have a great opening week.
Got more tips you'd like to share with our editorial team about what makes a great soft open? We're all ears: firstname.lastname@example.org