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Get It Right – Soft Openings and Better Beginnings

I recently went for lunch with the Serb to a new place on Beach Road that looks like the love child of Comptoir 102 and Al Serkal Avenue.  A repurposed villa with some beautiful design detailing.   However, this isn’t a review of the lunch we had.  Our lunch was unfortunately farcical.  It was missing serious fundamentals of service and hospitality, and it just wouldn’t be fair to review it as it was.

Obviously, they were newly opened, and at the end of our ordeal, I asked how long they had been open for business.  The dreaded “we’re in our soft opening” reply came back at me from a waitress clearly out of her depth.  I asked what the difference would be once the soft opening period ended.

“We’ll have more staff and a new menu.” She said.  I nodded as if that made sense.  It didn’t, though.

I paid our bill, (420 dhs for two) retrieved my camera lens cap from the pot wash after the waitress had cleared it for some reason and left that beautiful villa behind along with a little piece of my soul.  My only suggestion for them is to close the doors for a few more weeks of training.

There is “soft opening,” and then there is simply “not fu*&@#g ready.”

This got me thinking about the restaurant industry’s’ “soft opening” claims.  It is unique to the hospitality world – I can’t think of any other industry that does anything similar.

Imagine a soft opening in the theatre.

“Welcome to our Broadway musical of The Lion King.  We’re in our soft opening, so the cast might not remember all the words, and we skip a few scenes as well, including the bit where we lift Simba up on that big rock.”

I’ve done many soft openings in the past, and they should be used to iron out any operational issues, and hopefully minimise any cock-ups when we open.  They also give the team a bit of confidence, so they don’t end up shaking in the corner on opening day.  All the training and testing and menu development should have been done pre-soft opening.  A restaurant’s soft opening is about tweaking and perfecting, and it is of utmost importance to do it correctly.

In an ideal scenario, there will be two days of “friends and family,” partly as a way to celebrate a little as it gives the team an opportunity to show off their new restaurant.  It also minimises the risk of lawsuits in the case of food poisoning.

Often, restaurants also invite the contractors, project managers, designers, etc who played an important part in building the place.  This helps when the dimmed lighting system starts acting like it’s a schizophrenic nightclub, as they have the right people there to fix it.

Then they run three days of dry runs, where they operate an invite-only guest list, and in exchange, they ask for honest opinions and feedback about everything, from the service, food & bathroom cleanliness to perceived value for money.  Each session increases in covers and complexity until they are operating in the same environment that will be the norm.

All the dry runs, dummy runs, friends and family days are complimentary, and there is an understanding that in exchange for free food, there is a certain understanding and flexibility from the customers and an expectation for honest, constructive feedback.

After all this is done, a decision is made on whether the restaurant is ready to start charging full price for their product and services.  I’ve been in situations where we have had to go back to the training room after this week of soft opening because we just weren’t ready.  However, make no mistake about it, as a restaurant, if you engage in a transactional exchange, you are open for business, soft, semi or hard.

What you shouldn’t do is open your doors to the public, charge full price for the menu, request no feedback from the guests and then hope a “soft opening” excuse will allow forgiveness for a miserable experience.

Anyway, I’m off to a dentist appointment at my new local clinic.  It’s a soft opening, so he can only offer a light flossing.

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