When MAD Social opened in Chicago in February, it ran an entire week of soft openings to prepare for serving its real, paying clientele. “We ran it as mock service to give our staff a chance to prepare and discover anything that needed changing,” says Gina Stefani, managing partner of the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group, which operates the restaurant. “It also gave our customers a sneak peak of what we would offer.”
MAD Social’s opening strategy is becoming increasingly common these days, and some restaurants and chains are eschewing grand openings in favor of opening quietly. “You don’t get a second chance for a first impression, so when you open up fully you need to have prepared through a soft opening,” says Bill Marvin, owner of The Restaurant Doctor in Gig Harbor, Washington. “Your public is worth your very best effort; you can’t expect them to train your crew,” he adds. “You’re giving them half your effort if you don’t do a soft opening, but asking for 100 percent of their money.”
MAD Social invited friends, family, industry people, and even a few people from the street—and all dined for free in return for filling in a questionnaire that addressed everything from the food to the service and the lighting. Each day, Stefani and her colleagues compiled the responses and made tweaks to the restaurant, which included changes to the food and the layout of the menu. The pacing of meals was also altered, especially for shared plates, and signage on the bathrooms was changed because guests said it was confusing. The cost of a week of soft openings was comparable to a grand opening, Stefani says.
The problems identified through this soft opening are typical, says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen. In his experience, other problems include issues with inventory and stock, food expediting issues, and problems with food stations in the back of the house. “There’s a lot you can find in mock service that you can tighten up and improve,” he says. He suggests a soft opening with a minimum of three or four shifts before a restaurant fully opens its doors.
Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group never holds grand openings—just soft openings for three or four days. “It allows the employees—over a longer period of time—to perform to our vision and mission, especially if it’s a new marketplace or they’re a new employee to the company,” says Peter Karpinski, co-founder and COO of the group, which has 12 restaurants and will open another five within the next year. It also gives the teams in the kitchen and the bar time to test, tweak, and modify processes and recipes for foods and beverages, he adds.
Sage builds gradually over its opening days. The first day is the slowest, with a small menu, and each guest is told what to order; the second day, customers can choose what they order; by the fourth day, there is a full menu, and guests can order at will. “We gradually ramp up until we’re operating in the same environment that will be [our norm]—we add covers and complexity,” Karpinski explains.