The paint is dry, the tables laid and your staff is trained and raring to go. Now’s the time to fling open those doors and invite in the customers by holding your official launch party.
Or is it?
While you’ve accomplished a lot so far and the final hurdle is undoubtedly within sight, before you declare restaurant officially open, it would be exceedingly wise to hold a soft opening.
Why does your restaurant need a soft opening?
A soft opening can run for a few days or weeks, with you gathering feedback from different groups and making insightful observations along the way. Soft openings mitigate some of the risk that comes with opening a restaurants and provide a solid base for launching a successful business while you fine tune the concept.
Soft openings mitigate some of the risk that comes with entering the trade and provide a solid base for launching a successful business. From ironing out kinks in service to spotting a problem with the restrooms, not to mention acting as a catalyst to get the neighborhood talking, a soft opening can help you fine tune and create fanfare in equal measures.
By now you should be starting to realize that holding a soft opening is something you can’t afford to skip. Here’s how to plan a soft opening worthy of your restaurant’s ambitions.
Your soft opening service strategy
There’s no set strategy for holding a soft opening, but it pays to think about the elements you want to test and polish before you get started. If you’re running reduced opening hours, make sure all staff know how to greet and what to say to would-be customers who try to walk-in outside times when you’re not serving the public. Remember, first impressions count!
Some restaurants choose to open quietly a few days before their official launch, offering their full menu at full price to whoever walks in. They simply note any challenges and iron out issues along the way. However, taking a more targeted approach can help you to address different aspects of service and build confidence within your team, not to mention do a little of your marketing for you.
Another common strategy is to offer a reduced menu during your soft opening. This could be a few items from each section of your menu or platters made up of some of your signature dishes. This makes it simpler for the kitchen to get things out of the kitchen quickly. And by introducing customers to just some of your menu items, your guests can establish favorites but have a reason to come back once you’re fully open.
Opening a restaurant can be very full on for all involved and testing everything at once can leave little room to properly evaluate and action changes. By staggering the opening of your restaurant and serving up just your breakfast, brunch, lunch or evening menus on different days, you can ensure fewer stones are left unturned. Each menu is properly tested, your staff experience service throughout the day and you have plenty of time to properly debrief after each session.
Who should attend your soft opening?
You could leave it to chance and rely on people wandering in off the street to test your wares and if you do, loitering outside with samples can help to lure people in. Another strategy is to invite different groups of people along to different soft opening days or if you’re staging a shorter soft opening, you could invite a mix of groups along at once.
You can choose to assign different time slots so that you can tailor your offering. This also works to ensure that crowds are at manageable levels for you to be able to offer good service. Ideally you want have time to chat and build bridges with customers and gather feedback.
Nearest and dearest
It’s common for restaurants to invite friends and family of employees to soft openings and this can provide a number of benefits. Firstly, the guests have the opportunity to learn more about their friend or relative’s place of work, which can help to build support for your staff.
Secondly, serving friends and relatives can boost confidence and morale and give a convenient platform for collecting feedback. Finally, as with other guests who are afforded exclusivity by being the first to walk through your doors, these friends and family members will hopefully turn into ambassadors for your brand. You want people to help spread the word about your opening! It’s also nice to be able to thank your nearest and dearest for the support they’ve offered in helping to get your restaurant up and running.
Local businesses and their staff should also make it onto your invite list – after all, these are the people you hope will become loyal customers. Pop into local businesses and introduce yourself to the staff there, mention any specific happy hours or timeslots you have in place especially for those in the community or if you’re running an open walk-in invite, let them know when you’ll be open and what they can expect. Local groups and organizations may also be on your hit list. After all, the local choir might work up quite an appetite when they meet to belt out show tunes every Tuesday night.
Media and Influencers
Some restaurants prefer to wait until launch night to invite in press and influencers, but you could choose to involve them in your soft launch as a valuable testing board. While you may find critics are less forgiving of small mistakes than friends and family, they’re more likely perhaps to offer informed constructive criticism. You’ll want to ensure your staff and kitchen is as ready as possible in advance of the invite.
Some media and press will likely hold off writing a review until you’re officially launched but this isn’t always the case. To help manage expectations, be sure to explain what the invitation covers, and if you’d prefer reviews to happen once you’re up and running, make it clear you’ll be inviting individuals back for review opportunities once you’re fully open. Again, you may wish to allocate time slots or run a group event with a clear start and finish time.
To charge or not to charge?
You’ll need to decide whether to discount or offer free food at your soft opening. You could decide to offer a reduced menu at full price but to hand out samples as you mingle, but it’s very common to offer a generous discount on the price of food. If you’re discounting food, you can still choose to charge full price for drinks.
If you’re holding soft opening events aimed at different groups, you could also think about offering complimentary food, though some argue that by giving things away completely free you’re less likely to receive constructive criticism. Of course, your approach to gathering feedback will also impact how useful gifting free food is.
One option that’s become more popular in recent years is to run ‘pay-as-you-feel’ services. Guests are invited to make a donation in return for the food they’ve enjoyed and all, or a percentage of the takings are then donated to a charity. The pay-as-you-feel approach can help to establish positive feelings within the community and ensures that some value is attached to the food you’re providing.
Holding a soft opening can be very expensive, particularly if you’re offering complimentary food. While the purpose of a soft opening should never be to make money before you open, you’ll want to know investment has been well spent.
It’s therefore crucial that you have strategies in place for gathering insight from those dining with you. You can combine face-to-face feedback collection with questionnaires and even iPad surveys. Don’t forget to gather feedback from your staff too.
Ask about different aspects of service – wait times, rapport with servers, price points, décor but make it simple for guests to answer your questions quickly and easily. Building goal and debrief sessions into the start and finish of service will help you to identify challenges as they arise.
Creating repeat customers
For many owners, the soft opening is seen as a phase to highlight problems and fix issues, but done right it should also win you future business too. From a service point of view — be sure to set expectations well — you don’t want to disappoint customers with first impressions. If you’re running a restricted menu or only on day one of serving customers, let them know so they are inclined to be a little forgiving. If diners have a good experience they’ll hopefully refer others to you and word of mouth is still the most powerful restaurant marketing tool.
You don’t need to leave that referral to chance though. Consider asking customers to sign up to your email list for a discount on a return meal, you could even provide a discount they can pass on to friends; you can also let them know how they can easily reserve a table for their future visits to ensure a good customer experience. While they’re in the restaurant, take the time to talk to customers about upcoming events and plans. Running in-store initiatives to engage customers with your social media platforms can help to connect your for future marketing efforts too.
You might want to postpone inviting the Mayor and local celebrities until your official launch but there are lots of benefits to opening your restaurant in advance of your open day.
- Before your soft launch, make sure your staff is well trained and your menu practiced
- Be clear about who you will invite to dine and when
- Decide whether you will charge your menu at full price, discounted, complimentary or pay as you feel
- Plan how you will gather and use feedback
- Know how you will connect with guests to encourage future custom and referrals
Do you have anything you’d add to the list? If you’re in the process of opening up a restaurant, don’t forget to check out our post on grand opening ideas.