What Is a Soft Opening? And Should I Even Have One?
You’re a business owner and you are about to open your own restaurant, bar, brewery, or brewpub. You’ve gone through all the legwork of building the best business plan, securing investment, finding the perfect location, developing your brand and logo, designing the interior and exterior, planning the menu, and dealing with millions of other little details.
You can see the finish line looming in front of you with that grand opening datecircled on the calendar. And while a grand opening does seem like the grand plan here, have you considered a soft opening?
If you’re not even sure what a soft opening is, that’s totally fine because we’re here to help.
Consider a soft opening another weapon in your arsenal. It’s a chance to sharpen your knives (literally and figuratively), hone your operations, generate early buzz, and receive consumer feedback before you even open your doors.
If you haven’t already, here are the reasons you should consider a soft opening for your establishment.
What We’ll Cover in This Piece:
What Is a Soft Opening? And How Is it Different from a Grand Opening?
A soft opening is kind of like a test drive for your establishment. You invite a select number of folks to attend a special event that offers a preview of your place. During that one night you can test out the kinks in your operations, menu, service, and logistics, while also collecting some information on the customer experience. Plan one several weeks before your official grand opening to learn valuable information about your operation.
While soft opens aren’t a requirement, they are an invaluable business tool.
Why Should I Try a Soft Opening?
There are several advantages to running a soft opening:
- Survey Your Staff - You get the chance to see your staff in action and how they work together. Can improvements be made? Do a few people need to learn the menu better? A soft opening gives your staff the time to fully prepare.
- Generate Attention - Help develop buzz around your establishment before you’re even officially open. This can benefit your business even more when you go for the grand opening because folks will already be aware of your restaurant or bar.
- Get Consumer Feedback - In addition to the internal audit you can perform with your own staff, external feedback from potential customers can help you perfect your business as well. If you do decide to host a soft opening, make sure that you give your clientele comment cards. Come up with a series of questions asking about the quality of the food, the drinks, and the service to gain a small, early understanding of your product.
- Start Driving Revenue - Depending on how you run your soft opening (see “Pick Your Price” below) this might be your first chance to actually bring in some dollars while also gaining a bit of sense about the menu.
- Work Out Kinks in Your Operations - You can observe any large roadblocks in daily operations and tweak accordingly. This might be the biggest advantage of a soft opening.
6 Things to Prepare You For a Successful Soft Opening
Every restaurant, bar, or brewery will approach a soft opening in a different way. But for the most part you’ll want to focus on these six things to prepare you for a successful event.
This is crucial. It takes time to plan an event. Work your way backwards. For example, you could decide to plan the menu six weeks in advance and send out the invites four weeks before the event. Building out a timetable will help you determine all the steps you need to take to make everything happen.
Design Your Menu
This is a great place to start because it is one of the most fun elements of your soft opening. It will get you in the headspace to plan this event. Pro Tip: Create an exclusive, smaller menu just for the soft launch. First, this will make the execution easier. Second, it will give your consumers a sneak peek into the menu and leave them wanting to come back for more.
Pick Your Price
Do you want to offer your menu for free? At full price? Or give something discounted? Offering your menu for free will definitely be attractive and potentially drive more people to attend your soft opening. However, charging a certain rate will also be your first opportunity to generate revenue. We recommend finding that happy medium. Offer folks a discount to get an exclusive sneak preview of your menu. This builds up hype without charging full price while also allowing you to offset some of the costs by putting a price tag on the meal.
Who Should You Invite?
Who do you want to invite? How many people do you want to invite? Answering these questions will affect everything else from how much food you make to whether you offer a free, discounted, or full-price menu.
Are you just inviting family and friends? They'll definitely be champions for your business, but will they give you accurate comments and feedback or be biased because they know you?
Do you want to invite critics at the very start? Probably not. You want all those kinks worked out before the serious contenders take a crack at your business.However, consider inviting some local influencers. If they have a great experience, they can leverage their social platform to suggest other folks go check out your establishment when it finally opens. Giving them the VIP treatment will be an exciting prospect for influencers.
Pro Tip - Consider inviting other owners of local businesses in the area. This will allow you to build great connections and establish a sense of community as a newcomer. If you champion them, they’ll champion you to their own loyal consumer base. Plus, you can team up for events in the future.
What to Put in Your Invitations
Time, date, address, dress code, menu pricing (free, discounted…), and where to RSVP. Send these out early, at least four weeks in advance, to give people time to plan and respond.
Make sure your staff is hired, trained, and fully prepared. It might be helpful to run a mock day or two to get everyone on the same page. Communication between your team and the staff will be crucial during the day of the soft opening.
Pro Tip - Test your POS system before you round go! This is an essential step that many business owners can forget. All of the work you’ve done beforehand won’t mean anything if you get snagged on a faulty POS system. Put that puppy to the test during one of the mock runs with your staff.
Launch that Soft Launch
You’ve done all the legwork: You’ve planned the menu, you’ve trained your staff, you’ve sent out your invites, and you’ve received all your RSVPs. Now, you’re ready to launch your soft launch!
Take a deep breath.
You’re about to see months of time and hard work come to life. But remind yourself that things will go wrong. And that’s okay.
This is just a soft opening.
That’s one of the reasons you planned this event, so you could pinpoint potential problems and solve them before the real grand opening.
This is your day, so good luck.
And try to have at least a little fun!