What's the Deal With... 'Soft' Restaurant Openings?
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.
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.”
One of Souvla’s funnier friends-and-family feedback forms (Photo credit Souvla/Instagram)