Soft Openings Are Out of Control

Categories: Chow Bella, Saria

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"Open" or "soft open"?
Once upon a time in a land without Yelp and Twitter, restaurants fell into one of two categories: open or closed. But these days, the situation has become decidedly less black and white. In recent months, I've dined at a number of Valley restaurants that have decided to open their doors for business -- but on special terms. They say they're "soft open," a phrase that used to refer to a business opening quietly to do test runs before an official grand opening date.

In theory, it's a great idea, for both the business owner and the customer. But lately things have gotten out of hand and the soft opening offenses I've seen run the gamut from slightly annoying to "Seriously? WTF."

See also: Is Yelp Fair to Restaurants?

I dropped in for lunch recently at a local restaurant. The spot had been in business for about two weeks. I was disappointed to learn I'd made a long drive only to be presented with a limited "soft opening menu" -- at least they were actually able to serve everything listed.

But at one Scottsdale restaurant, which hosted a well-publicized/advertised grand opening event, I stopped in for a drink only to be told that some of the bar equipment still hadn't arrived. (It's important to note this restaurant's main draw is definitely not the food, but the drinks.) Because of the nonexistent equipment, a good number of the drinks on the menu weren't available at all.

Oh, and to top it off, the space was still under construction. So I "enjoyed" my drink with a nice view of construction workers, garbage cans, and dirt on the soon-to-be-completed back patio. Needless to say, it wasn't a great first impression. Not even close.

See also: Has Service in Restaurants Become Too Casual?

I understand that new businesses want -- and frankly, need -- time to open the doors and do a few test runs before putting themselves out there for the onslaught of social media critics waiting to slam or praise them. And to be absolutely clear, it's not the idea of a soft opening that I hate. But when the technicality of a phrase becomes a crutch for new restaurant owners and chefs, a sorry excuse for not being prepared, it's frustrating.

Paying customers shouldn't be used as guinea pigs. That means for your new POS system, your first-time servers, or those menu items you think will work but still aren't quite sure about. If they're paying full price for a meal, customers should be able to expect a full dining experience. And not just any experience, but the one promised on that restaurant's marketing materials, Facebook, Twitter, and website.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice if everyone out there on the Internet cut brand-new restaurants some slack? Yes, yes it would. (And it's why at New Times/Chow Bella write First Taste columns that are different in tone than our full-blown restaurant reviews.) But if there's one thing I've learned since becoming a journalist, it's that there's always going to be some who just doesn't like your stuff.

And calling your opening a "soft opening" isn't going to change that.

So call it what you want, but a "soft opening" is still an opening. And using it as an excuse for subpar service and food -- especially for weeks on end -- is not only bullshit, it's bad business.

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9 comments
Chad Austin
Chad Austin

Someone is very bored to sit around and bitching about restaurants having soft openings? If you don't like it don't go.

Josh Yeager
Josh Yeager

Very interesting conundrum here and I can empathize with both sides of the table. While I don't believe it's ok to "soft open" while construction and garbage are prevalent, leading to a sub par dining experience; I am all for the concept of "Kai zen" for any business. Many industries do beta launches, tests, focus groups and crowd sourcing to learn what works, what doesn't and what their guests/users need & want so they can continually improve. And a bottom up approach is smart for any industry. But proper planning and going live before you're actually street-ready is unwise. I think transparency is key, and I would hope that these restaurants you patronized in soft launch were inquisitive, interactive and honestly solicited your feedback while giving you some sort of compensation, complimentary app or drink in exchange for your valued opinions and patronage.

Jo Ellen Birt McNamara
Jo Ellen Birt McNamara

I completely agree. From my history with the bar/restaurant industry- soft openings are for friends, close community partners, and family only of the owners and staff...usually held about a week before the grand opening and the "night" didn't include table checks- only tips! ...and we did use everyone to test the service, food, and atmosphere. But because the wait staff were usually not financially vested....and usually scraping by while waiting for the restaurant to open...tips were encouraged.

Kelly J Kelly
Kelly J Kelly

Agree whole heartedly. A soft open is an open. if you want to find the flaw in your business/dining plan you should be testing what you THINK is a finished product. Not an unfinished one. Otherwise you aren't finding a flaw in your plan. you're screwing paying customers out of what should be a good experience and you're doing it knowingly.

Matt Norman
Matt Norman

That was written by someone who has never worked in a restaurant. You do soft openings (un announced) to keep patronage to a managable level so you can find flaws in the business/dining plan. Then once figured out you announce the opening.

James
James

A new restaurant in Chandler played the "soft opening" game and when they got bad reviews somebody claiming to be the owner blasted them for reviewing a two week soft opening. Turns out the guy wasn't the owner and the real owners fired him.  Whatever the other reasons were, he certainly made the pub look bad on social media.

azduros
azduros

Don't know if your first statement is accurate, but I have 40 years working experience including presently. A couple of practice runs, with friends etc., should be complimentary and gets your staff in gear. Although you may find a flaw or 2 food-wise to correct, the menu, recipes, and preparation were decided months ago. This exercise is to fix mechanical flaws in the process of producing it. A grand opening a week or so after the real opening isn't a new concept, but restaurant and staff need to be fully in place before this happens. It's to get enough repetitions in to handle the push of a grand opening. These folks are paying real dollars. They're not guinea pigs. If you blow it with them, you've lost potential regular customers and potential recommendations. Bottom line, open the restaurant when it's ready. Have a grand opening when you're ready.

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