Small Lessons From Grand Openings

a guide to an uncommonly good opening

There are two schools of thought on how a new restaurant should open. The first says you should have a slow, soft opening gently ramping up business over time. Roy Bergold Jr., the retired CCO of McDonalds, has a humorous take on how well that tends to work. The second school of thought advocates opening with a big bang - a real grand opening.

In truth, the extremes at each end are hazardous in their own way. Snail-like openings confuse customers and give your new restaurant the patina of a place that hasn't quite got it all figured out. A lavish open, on the other hand, draws attention but full-bore operation skips over a critical chance to assess and observe accurately. And the chance to make proactive corrections.

That's why we always pull for a middle approach - a soft grand opening if you will. It's a best of both worlds. We've collected 20-odd points of advice from the openings we've seen work or underwhelm. Any point can save some headaches. A few of them together might just give your new place the send-off into business that you've wished for.

The Soft Grand Opening

A 'soft opening' is generally defined as a weeks-long slow rollout of business, delaying marketing and outreach until your location passes muster. We're believers in a more active approach, with the goal itself being marketing and outreach which gets your business off on the right foot.

The key to a more useful open is getting away from the idea that a soft/grand open is a night of pretend business or a into-the-deep-end celebration. Instead, a your open and the days around it are a rare opportunity where you have an excuse to tightly control how you operate. Use that control and you can gain business momentum that may otherwise take months to earn.

As a goal, your open should demonstrate why customers will come to your place. And your effort should feel directed, in control and authoritative. Key choices need to be made across your menu, staffing, planning and more. In this manual of sorts, we'll highlight where and why you're likely to want to try to make a difference.

The Soft Open Menu

• Edit Your Menu

Some menu items you may not yet make well or dependably. Other items can trip up kitchen timing and crimp the flow of business. Cut those out.

An open can be like any busy night where service starts to strain. Get ahead of the curve by only depending on the items you know staff can turn out successfully while under pressure.

• But Don't Cut Your Appeal

Cut down to a more limited menu but make sure not to sacrifice what makes your location interesting or noteworthy. New restaurants have a honeymoon glow because they are a bit of a discovery. Be careful you don't deny your guests that opportunity.

It may be easier on kitchen and staff to make a few basic items. But you'll risk leaving guests without the curiosity or interest that brings them back.

• Sell What's Next

Even if you aren't serving your whole menu, it can be useful to show guests what you'll have under full operation. It can prime that all-important next visit.

Simple copied menus can list what you're serving for the open alongside grayed-out or unpriced "not yet" items. That sort of eye-candy on a menu piques interest and gives people a hook. If they enjoy your restaurant at the open they'll enjoy the idea of coming back for what they haven't had yet.

• Consider Circulating Samplers

If your concept and situation allow, circulating staff with trays of complimentary small bites or samplers can be a great way to add interest to your guests meal and broaden their exposure to your menu.

• Something "Extra"? Think Dessert.

If you'd like to offer any larger freebie, desserts can be the best option. They work well from a food-cost perspective and are also an item many diners defer from ordering themselves. A well-done sweet, freely given, is an excellent opportunity to end a meal on a high note of satisfaction.

Soft Open Planning

• Consider Using Smaller Portions

Especially if you have lowered prices: cut your portions down. Most guests at openings want to dabble and explore the menu. They may order more than one thing or course and they may share items back-and-forth. Let them have that opportunity.

Overstuffed guests can get you the opposite - complaints of "the portions were too big". And you don't want customers taking food home, where they get to re-analyze your restaurant tomorrow over leftovers that spent the night in the fridge or out on the counter.

• Plan Business People Can Notice

Prospective customers notice which places look busy and which do not. And they take "busyness" as an important cue in their own interest. Simply being busy can create more of it.

Take advantage of that by holding opening events at times other customers are apt to be around to notice. Thursdays and weekend nights are optimal. An opening is also not the time to worry about dividing guests between sections. Instead, plan to sequence and seat guests strategically for best outside visibility.

No one expects a restaurant - new or otherwise - to be busy every night. But showing that you are able to be busy is a mark of quality in itself.

• Use Opening Signage

Are you having an opening or a private event? Without signage prospective customers will not know. You should be allowing and encouraging walk-ins - so use signage to make it clear to passersby that they are welcome inside. Use a call-to-action if you can.

Signage can also help prospective customers perceive you as both new and busy. That's a combination that signals quality and attracts beneficial attention to your restaurant.

• Use A Real Invitation

You have a chance to actionably reach a lot more people face-to-face than you can by email or posting online. Common opportunities would be going on foot to neighboring businesses or meeting potential customers at a local fair, street event or farmer's market you are able to present at.

Word of mouth is nice but it can also go in one ear and out the other. Be ready with an attractive print-piece that can serve as your invite. If it fits your concept, make it redeemable to increase the chance of people holding on to it.

• Sense The Little Things

Customers are more detail-blind when revisiting an established restaurant because they already know why they are there. New restaurants are different and subject to much more scrutiny. So don't be afraid to pump up your smallest details - even if they don't exactly reflect how you plan to operate day-to-day.

Depending on your location, there are dozens of small housekeeping details that can elevate your profile. Clean your windows inside and out. Squeaky doors anywhere? Use WD40 on them. Consider staging flowers or candles on tables. Make sure lightbulbs match and none are missing. Trade out that commercial bathroom tissue for some upscale aloe vera one. Make sure the dining room is a comfortable temperature for seated guests - without hot or cold spots. Work to clear tables actively so that used trays, napkins etc do not linger.

You're already focused on taste. But don't forget how customers can judge you across other senses too - smell, touch, sight and sound.

Soft Open Pricing

• Lower Prices & Not Your Image

Restaurants need to be careful to not devalue their food with their pricing. Percentage-off approaches to setting prices for an open can have that effect.

Customers who receive discounts off of what they plainly see as the "full" price are invariably more prone to feel your real prices as being 'expensive'. Discounting that leaves room for comparison can lead customers to focus on the question of value.

Instead, simply set low prices for your opening. Customers will forget all about the prices tomorrow if you don't give them a reason to think about the prices today.

• Free Booze Is A No-No

While free beer, wine or liquor would certainly be a draw to guests you must rule it out. Most local jurisdictions prohibit any "free" alcohol outright and the extra liability concerns alone should make this a clear no-go.

Instead, as with "Happy Hours", you are still able to mark drink prices down or include drinks in with a paid food item as a pairing.

Soft Open Staffing

• Staff Extra

Staff to be busy - even if that means having extra hands available. A floater can be your most valuable staff member during openings. Even if they aren't always busy you'll welcome having that backstop.

• Don't Be Your Own Floater

It's almost never useful to let customers "see you sweat" - especially during an open when guests can be focused on the performance of the restaurant and highly attuned to the "vibe".

A visible owner should be warm, relaxed and in control - not running around the restaurant like on a reality show. Make sure you have planned staff to be the floater you're likely to need.

• Your Best Feedback Is What You Notice

Many restaurants make an effort to get customer feedback during openings. It can be useful. It can also be useless and awkwardly counterproductive. Most guests simply dislike being put on the spot or calling attention to themselves in unfamiliar environments.

It's much better to turn what you are able to notice into the feedback you need.

Before the open take time to train staff to notice and report the information you are looking for most. Which menu items did people skip over? Where there questions that reveal a lack of menu clarity? Which items were eaten and which were left? Where there any impromptu compliments or gripes?

• Counter-Service Location? Consider Table Service

Waiting on a line for regular counter-service can be frustrating enough. New places will engender tons of menu questions and lots of time spent by new staff fiddling with the POS system. That's a recipe for an underwhelming experience before anyone has eaten a bite.

Instead skip over all those potential problems (and lines) by using waitstaff for your opening. You'll turn tables and orders more quickly and have happier guests. You'll also have waitstaff with a rich trove of information you can benefit from.

Soft Open Guests

• Schedule Guests With Reservations

If you simply set a time your opening starts and ends, you are apt to have a compact rush of diners and the problems that go with it. If possible, it's better to wholly or partially schedule guests with reservations - offering 30 minute windows.

• Try To Segment

As you seek guest reservations, consider giving different groups of guests different time slot choices. If you simply offer a reservation every half hour, people will still tend to bunch.

Instead consider offering one set of guests choices of 7, 8 or 9pm. Offer a second set choices of 6:30, 7:30 or 8:30pm. Most guests are happy with fewer options and you'll be happier with smoother business.

• Allow For Walk-Ins

Ideally you want passersby to want to join in. A soft open is no time for a velvet-rope night or "sorry we're having a private function" excuses. Ideally you can be busy enough with scheduled guests that passersby notice and are drawn in for a look. Street signage (like a chalkboard) can be used to entice them further.

Think Outside The Box

• Open Before The Opening

Some locations may be able to generate interest with very limited service - even 'single item' menus - in the days or week leading up to a wider opening. Promotional ideas like $1 pizza slices, mini-tacos, coffee or similar all work. The goal is to get broad customer exposure, especially with a novelty that can easily turn viral locally. You want some "Oh did you see….." moments if possible.

The face time you get with these initial customers provides another good source of invitees for any larger opening event.

• Don't Forget Lunch

If you serve lunch, plan a separate lunch opening. The customers available for lunch in your area are likely different from those you might attract at dinner.

Other local businesses are a good source of invitees. Local "business" lunch customers are often thrilled to have new options and can be an ongoing source of business as they have lunch meetings, bring clients or simply escape the office.

• Brunch too!

Brunch makes a great second soft-open opportunity. Depending on whom you ask, brunch has a naturally festive and/or relaxing appeal. Either way it's a mood you'd love to have with new customers.

Pass customers who enjoy your dinner open invites to your brunch. They're likely to bring different people and are usually freer to do so on the weekends.

Go Be Grand

Whatever opening concept you choose, aim with a simple goal in mind: the more you supply what people generally like about restaurants and avoid what they generally gripe about, the better impression you'll leave with customers.

So turn out great core dishes, present your staff and space well - and appear to do it all easily. Avoid complex menus, overburdened staff, real prices and other trip-ups. If you do it well, you'll leave customers with a reservoir of good feelings that will turn into repeat business and great word-of-mouth. Now go have a grand opening!

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