You’ve applied for all the permits, created your menus, and trained the staff: your new restaurant is ready to open! Hosting a soft opening has become a popular, even standard practice before the grand opening of your restaurant.
There are different strategies when planning a soft opening, so we’ve compiled a list of soft opening ideas as well as soft opening planning tips to make sure your restaurant is ready for guests. But first, let’s look at the meaning of a soft opening and why many restaurants choose to host one.
What is a Soft Opening?
A soft opening, also called a soft launch, is a smaller, limited opening to a business. Many restaurants host soft openings before they open fully to the public. A soft launch is typically an invite-only event for a small crowd, where a limited version of the full service is offered.
There are various benefits to a soft launch, especially for restaurants. Soft openings work as a great trial run for your menu, staff, restaurant technology like POS systems, and for the flow of your restaurant as a whole. Hosting a soft opening gives you a chance to identify and work out any kinks before your doors are open to the general public.
After a soft launch, you can get feedback on your menu, service, branding, and more. This is vital information that can help you make tweaks before opening your restaurant full-time. A soft launch mitigates the risk of opening your restaurant and realizing you weren’t prepared.
Soft openings are also a great way to generate buzz about your restaurant opening. Inviting the right people can help spread publicity about your restaurant, especially if they have a great experience.
Soft Opening Ideas for Restaurants
- Friends and Family Soft Opening
- Soft Launch for the Local Community
- Industry Soft Opening
- Media and Influencer Soft Opening
- Host Multiple Soft Openings
Friends and Family Soft Opening
It’s common to host a soft opening for the friends and family members of the restaurants owners, managers, and staff. A crowd of friends and family will be more forgiving if things don’t run as smoothly as you’d like. This also helps staff get comfortable and feel more confident, as it’s not a high stakes opening.
Inviting friends and family will also garner good press and support, as they are more likely to become ambassadors for your brand. They can help spread the word about your restaurant and share what a great time they had online and through word of mouth.
Inviting friends and family to a soft opening will also inspire some loyalty, as they will likely be flattered to be included in the opening phases of your restaurant. This should begin to create a customer base, since they will hopefully return if they had a good time.
The only real drawback to a friends and family soft opening is that they may be too kind when giving feedback. A soft opening is vital for fine-tuning your restaurant, so ask for honest feedback, even if it is negative. Ultimately, honest feedback will help your restaurant as you can improve upon any issues before opening to the public.
Soft Launch for the Local Community
Make friends with your neighbors early by inviting people from your local community to a soft opening. A common practice is to invite local business owners and staff, especially if you’re in an area with lots of local businesses or a busy commercial street.
Inviting local businesses will help to introduce your restaurant to the local business community and meet on good terms. It can also help generate support from your business neighbors, which is always a good thing.
Inviting other businesses to a soft launch establishes your place in the community and makes it clear that you intend to be active and inclusive. In the future, you may work together or partner on events, so it’s great to start on the right foot.
You can also invite local organizations or charities to get even more involved in the community. This could also lead to future partnerships, and they are likely to become returning customers if they enjoy your soft opening.
Industry Soft Opening
Another great option is to host an industry night soft opening. If you plan to be an industry restaurant that offers discounts to other restaurant and hospitality workers, this is a good way to form that relationship early.
This can include both local restaurants or city-wide industry leaders. This crowd has experience and potentially influence on the restaurant industry in your area, so it can help form ties that can benefit you later.
Restaurant owners and employees will be able to offer better feedback from their own knowledge of the industry, so this soft launch can really help to work out kinks and find areas to improve upon.
Media and Influencer Soft Opening
To generate more press about your restaurant’s opening, invite local members of the media and influencers. This soft launch group will have a large audience that they can tell about your restaurant, so if you offer a great experience you can get great PR in return.
Look for members of the press who frequently review restaurants or search for popular local food bloggers, food influencers, or lifestyle influencers who can tell their followers about your restaurant. You may want to offer a free meal in exchange for a mention so that you ensure that you benefit from having them stop by.
You’ll want to put your best foot forward for this soft opening so that your guests only share great things – you wouldn’t want a food blogger with 10,000 followers telling everyone that your soft opening was a mess. Make sure your processes are buttoned up and your staff is ready.
It can also help to set up a good area for pictures, since Instagram foodies will want a post-worthy photo. Make sure they also follow and tag your restaurant on whatever social channels they use.
Host Multiple Soft Openings
You don’t have to host only a single soft opening – instead, you could host multiple soft openings with different groups. This also gives you an opportunity to test different menus and try different strategies to see what works best.
If you host a few soft openings, or even a full week, you can invite different groups each night. You may want to start with friends and family and work your way up to media and influencers, that way you can work out basic issues before having press present.
Hosting multiple soft launches is a good trial run for your staff and for the whole restaurant. If you offer different meals, you could host a soft opening for lunch, dinner, breakfast, brunch, or even happy hour depending on your offerings. This way, you get practice with each.
The biggest drawbacks to hosting multiple soft opening events is cost. While you can introduce a larger number of guests to your restaurant with a soft opening, you don’t want to waste too much money hosting all of these events. Budget for your openings to ensure that you stay financially responsible while planning.
Planning a Soft Opening
Once you have an idea of what kind of soft launch you want to try and who you want to invite, it’s time to plan the event itself. There are a few important considerations to keep in mind.
What menu will you offer at your soft opening? Often, restaurants offer a limited menu rather than the full thing. Decide whether you’re offering a full menu, a limited one, or what dishes you’d like to feature. If you have any signature items, be sure to include those.
If you’re hosting more than one soft opening, you can test different menus and menu items for each. This can generate useful feedback about dishes and menu combinations, and help you cut down if you’re looking to create a shorter menu.
Soft openings often offer free or discounted food. This is a common practice, so if you’re inviting guests to a soft opening make sure they know what, if anything, they’ll be paying for. Miscommunication on pricing can make for a poor soft opening.
Offering free food will please your guests, but can be costly for your business. If you choose to offer a free soft opening, you may want to offer small plates rather than full meals or a shorter event or smaller guest list to cut down on costs. While it may generate positive press for your restaurant, you need to stay profitable once you open.
A discounted menu is another option that still incentivizes coming to your soft opening without giving away food completely free. Guests will appreciate the opportunity to dine at a cheaper rate, but you’ll still make back some or all of the cost of the event.
You could also charge a flat ticket price for your soft opening that covers the full experience. This method covers the cost of the soft launch up front and makes it clear right away what they’ll pay and what they’ll receive in return. Make sure if you do this that they are getting a good deal for the price of their ticket, however.
You can host a soft opening and charge full price, but this is not customary. We recommend at least offering a discount so that guests are incentivized to attend, and so they appreciate the invitation more.
Make sure your staff is fully trained and prepared for your soft opening. There may be some mishaps and mistakes – that’s okay, that’s why you’re doing a soft opening first. This test run will help them get comfortable in their positions before you’re open full time.
If your soft opening is different than your standard day-to-day practices, make sure staff understands the difference and is prepared to shift to normal procedures once you’re open.
Ask the staff for feedback after a soft opening to get more perspective on how things went, where you can improve, and what issues they ran into. Fostering an open and communicative work space will only improve upon your service. Make sure they feel comfortable expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences so that you can help the restaurant run better.
Soft Opening Invitations
How will you invite guests to your soft opening? Since a soft launch is invite-only, you can hand select your guest list. While not everyone will come, you can still choose who to invite and add more guests if needed.
Depending on what audience you’re inviting, your invitations may be more or less personal. We recommend a more personal invitation so that guests feel included. If you’re inviting friends and family, personal should be easy. In the local community, it can be easy to walk around and visit neighboring businesses to give them an invite.
Physical invitations are a nice touch, but you can also send invites online. Creating an online event or tracking through email can also help better keep track of your guest list. Asking them to RSVP online can also help test your online reservation system.
Soft openings are a great way to get feedback, so you want to make sure you have a plan for this ahead of time. You can offer feedback cards at the event for people to fill out, or give them access to an online form to submit afterwards. If you have their email addresses, you can send them a feedback request shortly after the event.
We also recommend that an owner or manager is at the event, talking to guests and asking about their experience as it happens. While you may not receive much constructive feedback in person like this, it helps to show that you’re engaged and working on creating an excellent experience for guests.
However you collect feedback, be sure to ask a few different questions about the food, the service, the restaurant’s style, and their overall experience. Give them the opportunity to provide any added feedback you didn’t ask about so that you can learn more.
Once you’ve received their reviews, you can tweak wherever necessary before the grand opening and for your daily practices.
Soft Opening vs. Grand Opening
You can do both! There is no need to choose between a soft opening and a grand opening. While both have different benefits and vastly different strategies, many restaurants hold both a soft launch (or a few) and a grand opening.
Use the insights from your soft opening to inform your grand opening. If you realized during the soft opening that the kitchen moved too slowly, you can plan to speed up your processes in time for the grand opening and for daily customers once you’re open. You can also take what worked from your soft opening and use it for your grand opening.
Encourage guests who attend your soft opening to promote your restaurant and the grand opening to their friends, family, and online! Your soft launch is a great opportunity to put your best foot forward, fine tune your restaurant’s processes, and prepare for the official opening of your new restaurant.