It’s go time for your new restaurant. The menus are being printed, you’re interviewing your staff (and even have several of them hired), and now you’re picking the dates for your soft opening.

But, you’ve probably got some questions. How long should I have my soft opening? What type of things should I try doing? What must I have for a soft opening versus a real opening for my restaurant?

In talking to experienced restaurateurs, I’ve found some excellent information on what works and what doesn’t work for a soft opening, much of which might be surprising. So, let’s start this piece out by talking about what a soft opening is for, and what it’s not for. Once we have that concept down, we can move on to some neat tips and tricks that will help make your restaurant shine.

What is a soft opening for?

When I talked to people who had opened a range of successful concepts, I discovered that soft openings weren’t what I thought they were. My perception was that it was an opportunity for a restaurant to file off the rough edges and give the staff an opportunity to “get it right.” That, according to many, is dead wrong.

Soft opens give you a bonus opportunity to make your customers into evangelists; that’s what they are really about.

Think about it. What are you more likely to tell your friends about, your fifth trip to a restaurant that’s been open for 18 years, or your first trip to the new place that doesn’t even have a sign on the front of the building yet? Soft openings create exclusivity, which is the key to creating “buzz.”

Make the right mistakes

But it’s still okay if we make mistakes in our soft opening, right?

Well, yes, but they have to be the right kind of mistakes. If a guest has a bad service experience at your restaurant, don’t think they’ll forgive you simply because it’s a “soft opening.” They won’t. In fact, they are more likely to tell a friend about their experience at the soft opening simply because it’s novel.

Likewise, if they try something at your soft opening and it is cooked improperly, or the server doesn’t know the menu, you won’t be forgiven. If your host seats people too quickly and the food comes out cold, you won’t be forgiven.

So, what will you be forgiven for?

Firstly, having a limited menu with only a few options is just fine. Guests will understand that it won’t be the full menu yet. However, what you do serve has to be great. It should be the best parts of your eventual menu. You’re trying to build customer advocates here—people who’ll talk about your restaurant with friends and then bring them back later, proud and confident they’ll have a good experience. You are much better off creating a limited number of very good experiences than a larger number of so-so experiences.

Additionally, seating only a very limited number of people is perfectly acceptable. Make sure your host understands exactly how many tables you can cook for. Make sure they won’t cave to pressure from guests who want to get into this new concept. Seat what you can handle, and cook for them what you know you can nail.

Guests will have no problem with an elevated number of interruptions to ask about their dining experience. Guests typically don’t go to your restaurant to interact with your staff; they are there to have a social dining experience. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t want to interrupt them more than once or twice to ask if everything is okay with the meal. With a soft opening, your guests will understand you are trying to perfect your concept and will revel in the chance to talk with you about their experience.

You might be noticing a theme: all of the aforementioned items contribute to the goal of building customer advocates. They would be no-no’s for an already operating restaurant, but for a soft open will be perfectly acceptable.

What should I do differently in a soft opening?

Limit the number of tables

This isn’t normal service done badly; this is a different type of experience and service. Limit the number of tables per server to two or three. Yes, your labor costs will be high, but a soft opening shouldn’t be something you’re doing because you’re cash strapped and just need to get the doors open. That’s not a soft opening; that’s just a hasty opening.

Gather feedback from your guests intentionally

You want to have each server spend more time with the tables. Then, after each service, have your servers write down the comments customers made. This is important; if you don’t write down comments, you’ll be missing important parts of feedback from the clients.

Like all of us, servers are going to remember the things that made the largest impact on them, not necessarily the comments that would make the biggest difference to you, the operator. If you write things down, you’ll know clearly which dishes you’re nailing and which dishes might still need tweaking.

Tweak the dishes, but don’t revamp the menu

At this point, you don’t want to change your dishes too much. If they love the dishes, your guests are going to want them exactly the same way next time they come in. So if you change something, be sure that it is with sober consideration and for the right reasons.

Shorten hours

You also may want to limit your hours. Open at 5:00, instead of 4:00, during your soft opening. Have protocols and training set up for your staff on what to do if someone shows up at 4:30 or 4:45. You might want to give them a tour, or seat them at a table and only provide drink service until 5:00.

I’ll never forget showing up to a newly opened restaurant with 5 friends at 4:45, only to be told with no other explanation, “I’m sorry. We don’t open till 5.” Seriously? It was extremely disappointing. Luckily it was a restaurant where I knew the owner and a quick phone call confirmed two things: 1) It was a soft opening, and 2) The staff hadn’t been trained on what to say. Prepare your hosts and servers on how to handle early arrivals, and you’ll create that special experience that you’re looking for.

Special deals and giving things away

Though you may want to give things away, I’m not a fan of giving free things to customers. Why? I believe this tells your customers that you don’t believe your items are worth paying for. Obviously, this is one of the worst messages you can send. However, you might want to make them feel special or create a memorable experience.

Try changing your package, not the price, by offering the following:

  • If you want to give away appetizers, give away a small plate with a tiny sample of each of the appetizers available. This gives them the ability to choose and order their own appetizer.
  • Put a dessert sampler on the menu for two priced only a little more than a single dessert. This gives people the ability to order a sampling of each of the desserts and find their favorite on the first trip. Plus, it will create an experience between two people that will be conducive to feedback and discussion, which the server can then capture.
  • Offer a single price that includes appetizer, meal, dessert, and wine that is on a separate card marked “soft opening only.” Price it what your average ticket price would roughly be regardless. People will feel it’s special, and they will have a richer dining experience for it.
  • Don’t have wine by the glass. Instead, put a “paired tasting” on the menu which comes with a glass of their choice. You’d never be able to do this on the live menu as it would simply take too much time for each server, but on a soft opening with fewer tables, it would be fun for customers to vote on their favorites. Additionally, people believe their choices are always superior, so they’ll feel better about their experience if they get the opportunity to grace you with their choice.

Train your staff to describe everything the same way

You’ll want to make sure that each server describes everything exactly the same. Perhaps this isn’t much different that normal service, but it is a special point to emphasize for a soft opening. They should have their lines rehearsed to all the common questions you’re likely to get and they should all be giving the same answers that match the brand.

When they describe the dishes, they should describe them the same way each time. This is going to create a consistent guest experience that will make the feedback more meaningful. It will also allow you as the operator the ability to communicate your most important brand messages to your guests effectively.

In summary: Do it right

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Do your soft opening in a way that shows the best of what you have and the best of your staff. Customers will forgive you if you have a limited menu and hours, but they won’t forgive you for poorly trained staff who don’t know what they are doing. This isn’t practice.

But, if you get it right, the first people who come to your soft opening will be evangelists for your business. They’ll tell everyone they know how fantastic the restaurant was and then throw in, “And it was only their soft opening!” They will be back to try your full menu, and they’ll bring their friends.

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AvatarTodd Edman

Todd Edman, the CEO of Restaurant Tech Inc. is dedicated to helping restaurants and the hospitality industry get a better handle on employee training, culture and performance.