Keys to a Successful Soft Opening
Opening a new restaurant is incredibly difficult. Every new restaurant we open, I’m pretty confident, takes a few years off my life. The notion that we’ll gather this brand new workforce together and they’ll be prepared for the onslaught of a new restaurant’s initial push is counterintuitive in two ways. How will newbies get it, and why are we going into the world with a massive pop of new business while we’re at our weakest? We do it because the place needs to get open.
Additionally, people immediately judge this new restaurant like it’s a professional band playing Madison Square Garden when, in reality, the bandmates only met a few days ago. With that said, there are a few things to take a brand new restaurant’s soft open to set it up for success.
A Restaurant’s Soft Opening Week Roadmap
We opened the first Andolini’s on a Saturday, like complete idiots, and got rocked to the nth degree. It was our smallest opening ever, but we had no systems or situational awareness to prepare for that day. The dish pit overflowing with dirty cups and plates to the back door would inform you that we were in over our heads.
To avoid that yourself, here is a solid workflow for the week leading up to a soft open and how to set up the open for success.
Welcome your new staff with a blend of legal paperwork and a healthy amount of brand immersion. This isn’t just about ticking boxes; it’s about lighting a fire of excitement in them. They should leave feeling part of something bigger, ready to bring their A-game. Day one is about emotion and excitement to carry them through this crazy week and basic regulatory compliance.
If you have the option, this week of training will go significantly easier with transfer employees trained at other locations. To pull this off for store two and beyond, over-hire in the months leading up to a new store launch. It’s a lot easier to have someone captain the football team when they’ve spent some time at the high school; it’s tough to expect someone to be captain of the football team on their first day of freshman year.
Tuesday: The Learning Curve
The kitchen crew dives into the menu while front-of-house staff get up to speed with service standards. Meanwhile, you’re the conductor, fine-tuning every last detail, from licensing to décor. This is about learning basics and knowing them for a fact. Each trainee must perform the tasks, not simply read a menu. Only through physical interaction can most people KNOW a task.
Wednesday & Thursday: Redundancy is Key
Drill the training. Over and over. This is where your POS system and service scenarios come into play. Role-playing is crucial – it’s all about trying it in person, not just staff nodding their head when you ask, “Do you get it?” Cap off each day with team food tastings and keep morale high. You’re building a team; they must develop an allegiance to your brand and each other.
Friday: The VIP Soft Open
Train by day, but come evening, it’s showtime. Host an invite-only soft opening for a friendly crowd of VIPs—people like family, investors and Big Wigs who helped you reach this point. The focus is on team performance on this night. Servers practice with the full menu, and you get a front-row seat to the operation. Take notes, make a toast and watch how things work when a restaurant is filled with people.
The soft opening should be a celebration, but stay aware of it. The staff needs to understand and learn on this first night. Servers need to place all the food orders into the POS and learn where things are for muscle memory. The kitchen must create every single item multiple times, no matter how you might fear the
increasing food cost; if they don’t learn it now, it will cost you in the long run. Situationally, you’ll discover things that don’t make sense. These hiccups you can correct on your Sunday adjustment. Enjoy the night, but take notes throughout and keep it upbeat. Don’t let the night be too hard but not too easy.
Saturday: The Real Deal
An all-day soft open with timed guest slots prevents kitchen chaos and offers valuable, continuous training.
You should have a full day packed with appointment settings for guests to arrive. Anyone who would like to try this new restaurant should be given the opportunity, but choose set times, such as 30 or 45-minute increments from opening to close, so you are consistently busy but never overwhelmed. Additionally, customers should choose their menu items from a bowl to have a solid mix of items in the kitchen. Otherwise, you might have a full restaurant ordering the signature item, while the lesser ordered items never get the muscle memory needed for the kitchen to understand them dependably.
Have the servers walk through their full server sequence as a role-play. If they’re cashiers and not servers, the same rules apply. Perform all the
upsell verbiage and scripting that would occur with a paying customer, even if their order is pre-determined.
Repetition is your friend. A Scosche of make-believe is occurring here, but what is not fake is the need to learn as quickly as possible. They should fail now with non-paying guests on Saturday than with Monday’s paid guests who have more considerable expectations.
Sunday: The Adjustments
Sunday is your rest day for your staff, a day for them all to get their lives checked and take a break before the marathon starts. This is not your day off at all; this is the day you go hard in the paint, looking at everything that went wrong during training and fixing it as fast as possible. This typically means more shelves where they are needed in the kitchen to rearranging equipment, POS issues, like adjusting the printers and menu build so that come Monday, you have everything ready or at least as ready as possible to proceed profitably.
Monday: Opening Day
No matter what you do, opening day will always be insane. You might have a grand opening a few weeks later, but in reality, this will be your grand opening day. Customers will come in with high expectations, and you can do as much as possible to stay in line with those expectations with a relatively new workforce. Mitigate situations and be in front of problems directly by connecting with customers throughout the day. Ninety percent of customers will absolutely understand this is your first day and things go wrong. While 10 percent are seeking to have an issue with everything and will not be your longtime customer.
Most of your customer demographic has not worked a restaurant job before, so their expectations and awareness of our industry will differ from yours. They don’t get it, but here’s the thing: it’s not their job to get it; it’s your job to help them understand and enjoy their time with you, however possible.
Throughout this process, remember positivity and adaptability are your best tools. There will be stumbles, but how you handle them defines your success. You’re not just opening a restaurant; you’re creating an experience, a community, a place people will love from day one.