A soft opening, also known as a Friends and Family dinner or a mock training, is the event a restaurant hosts before the grand opening. It’s the practice session in which the kitchen and the front of the house staff work a shift and feed a full restaurant at lunch or dinner, but the customers pay nothing or very little.
The soft opening has a few goals, says Christopher Muller, director of the Center for Multi-Unit Restaurant Management at the University of Central Florida, Rosen School of Hospitality Management in Orlando. “This is not open your door and let everyone eat for free,” he says. Instead, think of it as a way to accomplish several goals: getting good public relations, alerting the community that you’re open, training staff and building up a list of names that you may contact later for promotions or other communications.
If you send invitations, be clear about how many people are invited. Use phrases such as “You and a guest,” and ask guests to respond by phone or email so you get an accurate count of how many people to expect.
Tony Crosby, vice president of restaurant operations for the 19-unit Johnnie’s New York Pizzeria, recommends also inviting local business people and city officials. Hold the soft openings a few days before opening the restaurant to the public. “You can hold two to three shifts or days of trainings and then have one day in between training and opening to finish any last-minute preparations before you officially open,” he says. Johnnie’s New York Pizzeria is one of the restaurant companies owned by Scottsdale, Arizona based Kahala Corp.
It’s important to control other details too. “You should figure out how many customers you want to serve, how many repetitions of a recipe or station to accomplish, and the amount of practice you want for employees,” Crosby says.
Plan which food and beverages your staff will serve. Give each table a card telling them what items to order, or offer a limited selection to each table, so that all items or stations will get an equal amount of training. “If you do not do this, you might get everyone ordering the most popular items and some recipes or stations will not get practice,” Crosby says. “Be careful as your customers will want to order what they want and not what you want them to. Have a selection for each customer to choose from so you can avoid any upset customers.”
Be sure to limit the amount of food people can order, so that certain extreme value seekers don’t order multiple entrees and walk out carrying four desserts. “It’s a training night, not a free food for everyone night,” Muller says. “The guests are helping you, not the other way around.” Limit each person’s order to, for example, one appetizer, one entrée, and one dessert. Ask people to fill out a short evaluation form at the end of the meal.
Gino Palma Esposito, owner of Facci Restaurant in Laurel, Maryland, says when they held their soft opening in January, they did not offer the full menu. “We did not have the fresh gnocchi because it would take too long to prepare the gnocchi,” he says. He did have the full crew though, working all three nights of the training.
He also charged people half price for food, full price for alcoholic beverages. “We told them ahead of time,” he says. “They knew.”
Muller says you should not charge any money, or if you do, donate the money to charity. Your best bet is to give to a local charity, or a well publicized cause such as earthquake relief.
Palma Esposito says the only problem Facci had was that they expected 30 guests each night, but got 60. The extras came from walk-ins, some of the guests bringing extra guests, and probably from the fact the restaurant had announced the opening on Facebook.
Muller, who owned a restaurant in Maitland, Florida, says it’s important to strictly control the guest list. That means telling each staff member to invite four people and give them a window of when to arrive at the restaurant. “So we would say, Sally you invite four people, so she invites her mother, father, and two roommates, and they get four seats and they should arrive between 6 and 6:30 on Sunday,” he says. “You control the numbers so you don’t stress the kitchen.”
Make sure you have enough trainers on hand to help coach and monitor workers. “The goal is to be able to train in a real life scenario with actual customers for employees to be able to experience what will happen after the doors officially open,” Crosby says. “It’s an opportunity to establish a longlasting relationship, so have owners, managers and shift supervisors meeting and greeting the customers while they are coaching the employees.”
These early guests will likely be more understanding than paying customers. “Since they were friends and they had a big discount they were not looking for perfection,” says Palma Esposito.
Or, as Crosby says, “They will be your first customers once you officially open and hopefully customers for life if you make them feel special during these Friends and Family trainings.” ?
Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.