Whether your business has a self-pour setup or a bar with traditional beverage dispensing, soft-openings are good (and essential) practice for any business in the hospitality industry. These “trial runs,” so to speak, are your perfect opportunity to put your restaurant, bar or taproom through its paces in a safe, contained environment, disconnected from the general public and free of any PR risks. Making mistakes in this setting should be expected and embraced, because each one represents a way to improve. And since your soft opening clientele will be handpicked from people you know personally – we will describe this in more detail below – they will be more forgiving of rough spots and more willing to provide sincere and productive feedback. With that feedback, you’re able to make adjustments where necessary and move into a public grand opening with confidence.
Take a few pictures of your venue and your logo, highlight your staff, and share it all on social media. Simply start narrating the story as that is what ultimately sells. Facebook and highly visual Instagram are the best to use in the hospitality field. However, depending on your target market and area you are in, don’t be afraid to create and use a Pinterest account or a LinkedIn profile to market as well. To automate the process and make it quicker, you can use Hootsuite, MeetEdgar, Buffer or any other social media scheduling software.
Tease your audience with things to expect and what the grand opening is going to be like, even if you don’t have a solidified date. The idea is to generate hype and excitement around your brand in general.
Preparing for your Openings
And yes, ‘openings’ is plural on purpose! We highly recommend having more than one soft opening, as this will allow you to truly iron out any wrinkles your establishment faces in a sort of “safe mode,” temporarily away from the public. Don’t underestimate the value of this! Not to mention this is a great opportunity to also gain valuable content such as photographs of your establishment in its full swing for your social media posts and gallery on your website.
By this point, you’ve finalized your planned list of invitees for your first soft opening. Now it’s time to start hard preparations for the event itself. This will involve finalizing your guest list, testing any on-site point-of-sale systems that you have, training staff, and planning out the structure of your likely limited menu offering.
As you create the invitations to send out to your first round of guests for the soft openings, you should make sure they include everything they need to know. Whether you send these out digitally or directly, there are a few essential pieces of information you should include:
- Address of your establishment
- Date and time of your soft opening
- Pricing structure/rough idea of menu
- How to RSVP
- Bonus: a coupon/voucher for a discount or free item when they return after the opening
Menu and Pricing Structure for Your Soft Opening
Deciding on what kind of menu to offer and what pricing structure will go along with it will be up to you. But, in making the decision, you should take into account your budgetary restrictions, your staff size and their level of confidence, and your predicted audience. Don’t be afraid of offering a limited menu; this is very common for soft openings and is often a smart move. You may want to refer to your cooking staff to decide which items should be on the limited menu. Try to choose a somewhat diverse set of offerings, such that your overall menu and tone is represented well. However, try not to choose items that will obviously take a longer than normal time to cook, or items which your cooking team thinks will be excessively complicated.
There are a few ways you can go with regards to the pricing structure of your soft opening menu:
- Free: This is not an uncommon option, but it’s more advisable to go this direction with a smaller opening, likely one with family and friends. As a general note, with a free menu, you can limit the number of items each customer can get (i.e. one appetizer and one entree), also you can keep your alcoholic beverage offerings paid.
- Discounted menu: you could sell each item on your menu at a discounted price, but it is likely a better option to charge full price upfront, and take a uniform percentage discount off of each guest’s final bill. This is a solid option for any guest number, and it will encourage guests to try many items as well, creating more avenues for valuable feedback.
- Flat rate: You may consider charging every customer at your opening the exact same flat price, while still granting them a choice of what to order. Like a free menu, you may wish to limit the number of items allowed per customer, and you may wish to keep alcoholic beverages at their normal, per-drink price.
- Full price: This is a better option for a second soft opening, but even then should be considered carefully. The guests at your soft opening will be providing very valuable feedback to you, and may not be getting the absolute best service or experience just yet. The best way to offset this is by allowing them to pay less than the full price for menu items.
Regardless of what pricing structure you decide to go with, you should plan on giving your guests a couple of extra things before they leave…
The first is a feedback form for them to fill out. On these, you may want to ask questions in a rating-scale format for general opinions about the quality of service and food, but you should also include sections for them to write openly about their impressions of what they think went well and what they think did not.
You should also offer special promotions or coupons specifically for guests who came to your soft openings in order to encourage return visits. These can be anything from an X% discount off their next bill to a free drink. This can guarantee you a respectable pool of customers for when your restaurant has officially opened, and can provide a nice initial boost for your traffic and hype.
Training Your Staff (And Yourself)
This is your chance to alleviate some of the inevitable nerves and uncertainty that you and your staff will have prior to the soft opening. By now, you will have a better idea of how many people you will be serving, and this will directly influence how you train your staff as well as yourself. The most important things will be making sure that service for customers is effective and efficient. Talk to your staff about how they should interact with customers. How often should the waiters or waitresses be checking in with their tables? How should they handle things if a customer has an issue with a dish they ordered? These are things that should be decided upon concretely before anyone walks in the door.
Your staff should also be well-prepared for their specific role. Everyone should be intimately familiar with the menu that is being served for the soft opening, and servers should be quite familiar with the ingredients and preparation details so that they can answer any questions from customers as well as possibly add a bit of finesse to their service.
Whichever staff member(s) are entering orders into a POS system should make sure to familiarize themselves with the system well enough to be able to enter orders without having to think too much about it when customers are inside.
As the owner, you should prepare yourself to interact with every single guest that comes in at least once, as this will leave a very good impression on your guests. This also gives you an opportunity to pick up some quick, moment-to-moment feedback, which can be extremely useful as guests may forget smaller details when filling out feedback forms after finishing their meals. You’ll also want to be the “jack-of-all-trades” for your staff, able to help servers and other staff members when they aren’t sure what to do. This means you should be an expert on your menu, your POS system, as well as any restaurant policies you’ve decided upon. You are not only going to be the face of your restaurant for your guests but also the point of contact and a comforting presence for your staff members as well. It sounds like a lot of pressure, but it’s also very exciting!
You’ve made your preparations. You’ve got your guest list, menu, and a staff eager to get started. It’s time to let your first round of guests in and get started with a soft opening! Here are some things to keep in mind in order to make the event a resounding success.
Make the Rounds
As the owner, you’re going to want to be running around quite a bit. Check in with your customers at least one time per table; maybe take over as host for a while to be their first point of interaction. Make sure you are also checking in with all of your staff to make sure things are going well for them, and make sure to lend a helping hand to anyone who needs it.
You should be ready to wear many hats, and generally be very present around as much of the restaurant as you can. This will make your customers feel welcome and your staff feel more at ease. Most importantly, make sure to maintain as friendly and welcoming a tone as possible, and simply enjoy the night. This is your debut and you should show people your pride and excitement!
TIP: Consider taking pictures of guests, staff, and food during the night. These can come in handy for PR, especially as you begin marketing for your grand opening later down the line.
Collecting and Recording Feedback
During the entirety of your soft opening, both you and your staff should be paying close attention to the things that are going well and not so well. Your analysis of how your business is operating is just as important as your customers’, so make sure you’re taking note of everything. Speaking of which, have everyone on your staff carry a notepad and a pen with them, or have them set up another note-taking system that will be most efficient and convenient for them. You should plan to record notes with every free moment; you don’t want to forget any small details. This is also the best way to record minute-to-minute feedback that you’ll be asking for from your customers before they officially fill out a feedback form.
Once things start winding down, you can move on to more structured forms of feedback. You should make sure to give every guest (not table, guest) a feedback form to fill out before they leave their table, and have them simply leave it there for staff to collect and compile.
On the staff end, you should factor in time at the end of the night for a debrief where you can go over major points for improvement or commonalities everyone was noticing. This is also a good opportunity to congratulate your team on a successful soft opening, and generally take a breath before moving on to the next step.
TIP: Before your guests leave, have your host give them some sort of promotional material, such as a coupon for a discount at their next visit, or a free drink, etc. As mentioned before, this is a great way to encourage return visits.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: we highly recommend holding at least two soft openings. Even if you’re feeling confident after your first trial run, it can never hurt to run another one to make sure that all the kinks are smoothed out.
If you decide to do so, make sure your budget in at least a few days or ideally a week between Soft Opening #1 and #2, if not more. You want to have time to look over EVERY piece of feedback from the first night, from every customer and staff member. Then, you will need a good amount of time to implement changes where they are needed. A lot of this will take the form of training your staff to adjust their strategy or methods, but there may be some more technical adjustments needed. Either way, make sure all changes are made effectively.
Once you’re ready to go, it’s essentially a matter of rinsing and repeating your first round, albeit with the appropriate changes made to your restaurant and service strategy. The guest list for your second round can be a bit more ambitious if you’d like: you can invite people from the local restaurant community or other business owners as a way to gain some valuable connections as well as some solid marketing material (don’t forget to always be taking pictures for social media!). Things should go a bit more smoothly this time around, but you should still collect feedback with the same diligence and attention to detail as before.
Prepping for a Opening
With at least two rounds of soft openings and some valuable feedback under your belt, you’re likely going to be feeling eager to really get things started. But like the time between soft openings, the time between the soft opening(s) and the grand opening is crucial for implementing changes based on observations and feedback. This is prep for the real thing, so you should be as focused and patient as you have always been.
With this said, as soon as you have a solidified date for your grand opening, you should immediately be marketing. Social media is the new face of digital marketing, so don’t ignore any channel. You should have been taking at least a few photos during your soft openings, so use the best of these to generate hype to the general public about the grand opening. As we mentioned previously, you might want to use a scheduling software (like Buffer) to take some of the effort off your back. You might even consider using it to market with a “countdown” format, a week or so out from the big day.
For some additional PR coverage, you can consider partnering with a local organization, such as a charity, for your grand opening. This is something a number of new restaurants pursue, and it can be great for your marketing purposes. Publicize based on this partnership, so plenty of cross-promotion, and give back some of your initial revenue to that organization. It’s another investment, of course, but it will generate a lot of positive buzz around your restaurant and should be worth it.
Once people are coming in the door, you should try to make sure it’s as inviting and exciting as possible. Make it a party! Invite local musicians or performers that you know to come in and entertain while guests enjoy their meals. Even some light live music can really contribute to creating a nice ambiance; just make sure the music being played matches the tone you want your restaurant to have.
You’re going to have a lot of guests this time, and it may be a good idea to leverage that opportunity. Consider offering grand opening guests a promotion or coupon that allows them to receive a discount when they come in for a meal next time. It’s always good to encourage return visits, and using the hype and high volume of your grand opening to do so will be even more effective.
Finally, don’t forget to document! You should focus primarily on marketing documentation this time, so take plenty of pictures of happy customers and fun things happening so that they can be used later for your social media marketing. Also, just because this is the grand opening doesn’t mean that feedback is no longer useful. Ask your guests how they like everything, and do your best to continue taking notes on what could still be improved. This may not be as rigorous a process as it was during your soft openings, but it’s still important here, as you now have guests who will better represent your future crowd.
Once you’ve had a successful grand opening, you’re in great shape! The hardest part is over, and now your journey can begin. Keep marketing, listening to customers and staff, and adjusting when you need to, and your establishment will be a sure-fire success.