When MAD Social opened in Chicago in February, it ran an entire week of soft openings to prepare for serving its real, paying clientele. “We ran it as mock service to give our staff a chance to prepare and discover anything that needed changing,” says Gina Stefani, managing partner of the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group, which operates the restaurant. “It also gave our customers a sneak peak of what we would offer.”
MAD Social’s opening strategy is becoming increasingly common these days, and some restaurants and chains are eschewing grand openings in favor of opening quietly. “You don’t get a second chance for a first impression, so when you open up fully you need to have prepared through a soft opening,” says Bill Marvin, owner of The Restaurant Doctor in Gig Harbor, Washington. “Your public is worth your very best effort; you can’t expect them to train your crew,” he adds. “You’re giving them half your effort if you don’t do a soft opening, but asking for 100 percent of their money.”
MAD Social invited friends, family, industry people, and even a few people from the street—and all dined for free in return for filling in a questionnaire that addressed everything from the food to the service and the lighting. Each day, Stefani and her colleagues compiled the responses and made tweaks to the restaurant, which included changes to the food and the layout of the menu. The pacing of meals was also altered, especially for shared plates, and signage on the bathrooms was changed because guests said it was confusing. The cost of a week of soft openings was comparable to a grand opening, Stefani says.
The problems identified through this soft opening are typical, says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen. In his experience, other problems include issues with inventory and stock, food expediting issues, and problems with food stations in the back of the house. “There’s a lot you can find in mock service that you can tighten up and improve,” he says. He suggests a soft opening with a minimum of three or four shifts before a restaurant fully opens its doors.
Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group never holds grand openings—just soft openings for three or four days. “It allows the employees—over a longer period of time—to perform to our vision and mission, especially if it’s a new marketplace or they’re a new employee to the company,” says Peter Karpinski, co-founder and COO of the group, which has 12 restaurants and will open another five within the next year. It also gives the teams in the kitchen and the bar time to test, tweak, and modify processes and recipes for foods and beverages, he adds.
Sage builds gradually over its opening days. The first day is the slowest, with a small menu, and each guest is told what to order; the second day, customers can choose what they order; by the fourth day, there is a full menu, and guests can order at will. “We gradually ramp up until we’re operating in the same environment that will be [our norm]—we add covers and complexity,” Karpinski explains.
New York City–based Gerber Group also gradually ramps up service over the week it dedicates to soft openings in order to gradually work out any kinks. Principal and CEO Scott Gerber says the restaurant company limits the number of guests who can come in and dine on the first night, and more customers are gradually allowed over the course of that “soft” week. After each shift, the staff and managers recap the service and discuss how much to increase business.
David Scott Peters, founder of TheRestaurantExpert.com, is a big proponent of doing soft openings in this way. “You can put up a banner saying ‘Forgive Us, We’re Training.’ You want your guests to be as forgiving as possible,” he says. However, even before you do a soft opening, you need to be fully prepared, he says. Make sure to have the necessary training materials, costing cards for menu items, all of the inventory in place, and all employees fully trained. This includes, he cautions, making sure all of the chefs have experience preparing the food before a soft opening begins.
It’s simply too risky to open without hosting some “soft” service times, Sage’s Karpinski says. “You open a restaurant these days and you’re reviewed before breakfast the next morning.” And word-of-mouth reviews spread quickly through social media, he adds, meaning grand openings really aren’t necessary, especially if the restaurant is careful about whom is invited to the soft opening. Sage focuses on friends and family, as well as key tastemakers, influential people in the restaurant industry, and bloggers.
The company also relies heavily on its front-of-house staff during the soft-opening period. “Their feedback is really important; they are the ones on the front line and the ones who really understand what’s going on. This soft opening allows us to take their feedback and act upon it,” Karpinski explains.
The total cost of running a series of soft openings like this is around $60,000, Karpinski says, about twice the cost of a grand opening but also twice as beneficial. “It’s a business investment and it takes a lot of time and energy to do. We’ve looked at what it costs to do a grand opening compared with a series of soft openings, and we think the soft openings are a much better bang for our buck.”
For Good Cause
Breakfast, brunch, and lunch chain Famous Toastery chooses to hold a grand opening. However, it starts with one or two soft-opening shifts that are always on a weekday and are a pay-what-you-want business model. All proceeds from these shifts are donated to charity. This approach has worked well for the nine locations Famous Toastery operates and is the formula the chain will follow for the 18 openings it has scheduled for this year.
“When you first open a restaurant, anything can happen—so for the first day it’s all on us,” says Robert Maynard, co-founder and CEO of the Huntersville, North Carolina, chain. Franchisees select the recipient charity but Maynard prefers that it be local. “We try to make it dear to them,” he says, “especially for the franchisee.”
The company doesn’t promote the soft opening, but, Maynard explains, “It’s a way to show good faith to the local community and show that we’re going to raise money. We tell them ‘Love us, don’t judge us.’ So we won’t get as many people, which helps the kitchen and the staff.” Famous Toastery typically welcomes 200 to 300 people for its soft openings, way below its typical busy days of up to 800 guests. Before a soft opening, Famous Toastery hands out promotional materials to local businesses, and on opening day, the restaurant’s mascot, Mr. Toast, is featured outside.
Across the country, husband/wife restaurateurs Noah and Marín Howarth von Blöm own three restaurants in Costa Mesa, California, and opened each with an eye to making the process efficient and building a sense of teamwork. Their first, ARC Food & Libations, opened in 2013; Marin Restaurant just opened in February and Guild Club opened in March. Three days of pre-opening were followed by two days of soft opening at ARC and at Restaurant Marín.
In the three pre-opening days, all staff were present and were taught about beverages the first day, food was the focus of the second day, and the third day concentrated on the restaurant’s philosophy, policies, handbook, and brand. “We feel it’s never fair to your staff, whose first day it is, to set the dogs on them,” Marín von Blöm says. Those three days aren’t only about teaching the staff about the restaurant, “they’re also about building camaraderie,” she says. “We do games, scavenger hunts, and let the employees get to know each other, which makes for a better working environment and a better-run restaurant. It also allows them to get to know us and hear about our stories and how we started as servers and bartenders.”
The couple’s most recent addition, Guild Club, is a reservation-only concept. Opening night, the restaurant held reservations to 60 percent of capacity “to get systems in place and get the servers comfortable,” von Blöm says.
Transitioning to Day One
When a restaurant brand has a national presence, the repercussions of opening day successes or snafus can be more widespread. The 25-unit Bennigan’s brand expects to open five restaurants in the U.S. this year and all of them will launch with soft openings of at least one night. These soft openings invite people from the local community, friends and family, and vendors to enjoy a meal in the restaurant, with seating times staggered to eliminate a rush. CEO Paul Mangiamele says vendors are included to create goodwill and to have them on hand if anything goes wrong with the restaurant’s equipment.
After the soft opening Bennigan’s goes into a quiet mode, opening its doors to the general public without any fanfare. Two to four weeks later, the company starts promoting the restaurant with TV and radio spots, direct mail, and other marketing vehicles “that will ramp up our business over 90 to 100 days,” Mangiamele says. “The marketing doesn’t happen all in one day but is layered; you don’t want 10,000 people showing up on day one.”
Soft openings have another purpose, says consultant Allen. “They can endear people to feel more alignment with the restaurant because they feel they’re in the know. Soft openings can be used not only to practice but also to help people connect with the restaurant.”
The best strategy might be to chase a soft opening with a grand-opening celebration, as consultant Marvin explains, “It’s nice to say ta-da, we’re here. And if you’re going to do an event, make it an event. It’s show business and you’ve got to put on a show.” Grand openings can also create goodwill among patrons and good morale among employees.
Famous Toastery holds a grand opening two to four weeks after the “soft” period and promotes the event through social media, radio spots, and fliers. The chain also invites leaders in the local community—the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, local businesses, and other franchisees and employees. The grand opening celebration typically includes a drawing that gives two people free food for a year and often touts locally themed prizes as well—such as a surfboard giveaway at a coastal location or a ski-themed prize in Utah.
Buffalo Wings & Rings moves at a faster clip, opening new restaurants with a one-day soft opening on a Monday followed by a grand opening two days later.
That’s a shift from the past. The Cincinnati-based chain, which has 60 units globally, used to do a grand opening about six weeks after a location opened. “We found it was a little confusing to wait that long, especially if people in the community knew we were open,” says Christin Rose, a company marketing associate who leads local store marketing and grand openings.
While the actual grand opening is kept fairly low-key, basically involving a ribbon cutting, the chain runs a series of special events for a week after the opening.
“We decided to celebrate from the beginning with activities, giveaways, and promos, so once we open the doors and people visit us for the first time, they’re getting that little something extra,” Rose says. The concept gives out trinkets and runs specials during the opening week, and also offers free food for a year for the first 84 guests, a nod to the brand’s launch date in 1984.
A key objective should be to make the grand opening representative of the restaurant experience and brand. The Gerber Group doesn’t have a set formula for its restaurant openings. Thirteen of its 14 locations are in hotels, and each grand opening depends on the feel and style of both the hotel and the restaurant. For instance, the grand opening celebration at Mr. Purple in the Hotel Indigo Lower East Side in New York City last November was a big party. “Everyone knew it wasn’t just about experiencing the space,” Gerber says. “It’s about exposing the property and letting the staff see what the restaurant can be like.”
By contrast the March 2015 opening of Irvington, located in the W New York-Union Square, was more subdued and exclusive. Since this is a much smaller restaurant, the Gerber Group decided to invite around 70 people for a sit-down dinner. “We always struggle with how to do grand openings but we want people to enjoy the restaurant the way it was meant to be enjoyed, and that’s typically not 300 people standing around eating appetizers,” Gerber says. “On the other hand you don’t want to insult people by not inviting them if you do a small event.” In the end, he assesses each restaurant for what will work best.