To soft open or to not soft open, that is the question. When a restaurant soft opens, it opens to a limited group of people for a limited time and sometimes with a limited menu. It is distinguished from a friends and family opening in that the restaurant may also or exclusively invite in members of the general public. In an ideal world, a restaurant would have weeks to practice taking orders, cooking, plating, and serving food so that when it officially opened its doors, the staff are fully prepared.
But opening to the public and waiving charges — in addition to covering labor and operating costs — can be a make-or-break investment for a small business. Needless to say, this is a topic on the mind of every restaurateur and chef in town. We went to some of LA's biggest and brightest. Here's what they had to say:
Josh Loeb, co-owner Rustic Canyon, Milo & Olive, Huckleberry Bakery, Sweet Rose Creamery: "I think soft-openings are really helpful. Everyone does them differently, but for us to have a few days to try out either a modified menu or modified hours before we get into the heavy flow of things is really useful. Plus no matter how well prepared you are, openings are hard and it takes a little while for a restaurant to get its 'sea legs.' So hopefully a soft opening is a reminder to customers coming in to to be a bit more patient and understanding as we work out the kinks."
Jeff Mahin, Stella Barra: "I love soft-openings. It's like any sport, it's like how you can play another team before the season really starts. It allows you to see all of your flaws. You think you invite your friends and family to be really nice and understanding, but you get some of the most honest feedback. We do it because I don't want to play with customers when I know I might make a mistake. If we screw up, they'll be more understanding and honest with us and tell us what needs work. It gives us confidence. It gets a lot of those jitters out of the way. It's an investment.
Something I learned about running six restaurants is you have to spend the money, but smarter. I'd rather spend the money on practice and experiments. I don't think any restaurant should open until they feel comfortable. The minute you open to the public it's on. You don't want to open and not be ready and spend three weeks making up for it, trying to get people back in the door."
Adam Fleichman, Umami Burger, ChocoChicken, smoke.oil.salt, Roadhouse LA, 800 Degrees: "From personal experience we've done soft openings at just about every venue, so yes, we do them. Although, in general, if the restaurant is very buzzworthy, we never quite get a "soft" opening – people come in from day one, so the staff is trained to be ready to hit the ground running."
Chris Simms, CEO & Founder, Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar: "When we open a Lazy Dog, we conduct mock-runs in the days leading up to the official opening to not only ensure our staff is fully prepared for service on that first day, but also as a way to introduce the restaurant to the community. We invite locals to join us for a complimentary meal during those test runs, and any donations we receive are collected for a specific local charity or school.
Because we operate a from-scratch kitchen and are a service-oriented restaurant, we find these mock-runs allow our staff to feel fully confident in their ability to execute and meet the needs of our guests as soon as we open. First impressions are critical in the restaurant business, and at Lazy Dog we want to be out our best from day one."
Paul Hibler, Pitfire Pizza, Superba Snack Bar, East Borough, Superba Food + Bread: I always try to do a soft-opening. Opening a restaurant is such a scary thing for everyone involved, and the soft-opening gives everyone the confidence and discipline to know that they can do this. It's what I'm doing now at Superba Food & Bread. I needed it to open for all of the day parts — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — but I couldn't make the chefs serve the whole menu. So we've started with a limited menu, and that's how we've been doing it. If you don't do a soft-opening, you can really hurt yourself. Sometimes the opening is delayed and you just have to start serving, you can't wait any longer, but you want to be ready. You risk upsetting your first few guests and then it can take weeks, months to earn their trust again."
Ray Garcia, FIG: "I like them. Your biggest friends and fans are also your biggest critics. They want what's best for you, so they aren't going to mince words. I think the staff appreciates the practice as well."
Walter Manzke, Republique: "I'm not running a huge corporation, but the good thing about big companies is that they have the resources to afford a week or two of soft-openings. They can train their staff and get all of the kinks out before charging anyone, and it always works out better if you can give people something to practice with. I've never had the resources to open something perfectly, and I sometimes think that's better. It's better because everyone knows they're not starting out perfect, so everyone is motivated to improve and to constantly get better and this is how a great restaurant evolves.
Because of how Republique opened, we just limited it to 50 people each night for the first few nights. That was hard because we were turning people away, but we needed that time to practice. Personally, I'm not a big fan of friends and family nights. I don't think your friends tell you what they really think — they support you, but I think they're afraid to be honest."
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