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What's the Deal With... 'Soft' Restaurant Openings?

Julia Bainbridge

You know that thing? That thing that’s everywhere, and it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

What's the Deal With... 'Soft' Restaurant Openings?

Working out the rotisserie oven at Rotisserie Georgette is its own beast. Pictured here, chef Chad Brauze. (Photo credit: Courtesy Rotisserie Georgette)

“I am sure there has not been a restaurant in history that has been opened with all systems working,” Georgette Farkas told us emphatically. She was referring to technical systems—phones, oven lights, smoke detectors—but it could apply to everything under the roof of her New York City restaurant, Rotisserie Georgette, humans included.

That’s why restaurants start with what they call the “soft opening.” 

What It Is: While definitions of “soft opening” differ from restaurant to restaurant, it’s generally known as a practice run of a business before the grand opening. Souvla in San Francisco hosted test lunches and dinners for friends, investors, and local merchants, but when Charles S. Bililies finally opened his restaurant on April 8, it was without any formal publicity. “We didn’t want to make any grand announcement about Souvla opening for fear that it would be overly publicized and we’d get crushed,” he said. “The whole intent was to fly under the radar for the first couple of weeks to make sure the staff choices were right and that systems were in place.”

Before Farkas, who has worked with Daniel Boulud, opened Rotisserie Georgette, she had what she calls a pre-opening training period. “I hesitated to even use the phrase ‘soft opening,’” she told us. “With all the people involved, I made sure to constantly reassert that message: this is about training.” In case you weren’t clear on her point: “Training training training, planning planning planning, organizing organizing organizing.”

What Does a Soft Opening Involve? For Farkas, it started with classroom training (long documents detailing steps of service), then shifted into role-playing (half the staff served the other half), then three nights of dinner for the construction crew (“You need bodies to train on, but you want people who are not going to judge you too harshly”), and a week of what are known in the restaurant industry as “friends and family” dinners (ten days, by invitation only, with feedback forms). Once she opened, Farkas took just 30 reservations a night, then moved up to 60, and then gradually worked up to 120. “We kept broadening the circle, little bit by little bit.”

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One of Souvla’s funnier friends-and-family feedback forms (Photo credit Souvla/Instagram)

Why It’s Important: As a counter-service restaurant that doesn’t accept reservations, Souvla doesn’t have the luxury of tempering demand without shutting off the waiting line. “We ordered what we thought would be enough lamb for the day—around 60 pounds—but we ran out by 12:45 p.m. and had to get an emergency meat delivery,” said Bililies. Now he knows how much to order given the high demand—and where to store  it.

The point of sale system—the way servers enter file orders to the kitchen—was the stickiest bit for Farkas and her team. “It’s the least sexy part of the whole thing, but it can change everything.” Farkas’s own role as maitre d’ has been key to the proper flow, too. “It’s not how many covers you take, it’s how you take them. You know what is a perfect scenario for the kitchen—how much pressure the cooks can take—and if covers go at the wrong pace, the kitchen can’t handle it.” 

At the opening celebration for the Annex in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, two weeks ago, owner Amy Bennett asked a neighbor who lives above the restaurant to sound-check noise level. Annex designer Amy Morris said the opening also gave her a chance to work on lighting. “We realized the lights didn’t get dimmer capabilities, so now we can make that change before the contractor’s last walk-through.”

While some members of the media were present at the Annex opening, Farkas is very clear about her pre-opening period: “This training exercise is not about inviting media. Why would want to show yourself to them with your pants down?”

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The crowd at the Annex’s opening night (Photo credit: Courtesy the Annex)

Why It’s Hard to Do Today: Exactly what Farkas said: the media. While the point of a soft opening is to work out kinks before the world knows of your existence, “now you have media outlets like Eater that devote tremendous amounts of resources to reporting what’s going on over here and over there.” SF Weekly reviewed Souvla on “soft” opening day, for example. The Internet and the food-crazed set have made soft openings nearly impossible. “It’s just a reality of operating in today’s day and age,” said Bililies. “Think of it as a baptism by fire.”

Yahoo Food’s rule of thumb: Don’t judge a restaurant until it’s been open for at least two weeks. Was the service a little spotty at that new bistro that opened around the corner? Try it again in ten days, once the staff has gotten its rhythm.