Anyone who has ever launched a business – restaurant or otherwise – knows that a “grand opening” is usually not the first time you’ve opened the doors. While that seems odd to some, just imagine how weird “Hamilton” would have been without dress rehearsals, or how much worse the Mets would be without spring training.

When holding a restaurant soft opening, consider it a dress rehearsal for every part of your operations. It’s a chance to make sure your kitchen is functioning as intended, your staff is up-to-par with the menu and the workflow, and that your food has found a waiting audience.

Sounds a lot like a grand opening, no? Well, maybe, but it doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. In fact, if you spend enough time observing how your soft opening runs, you can gain valuable insights into what you can expect (and what to change) before you open those doors for real.

Let’s dive into a few restaurant grand opening ideas for your soft opening that will ensure your actual grand opening goes according to plan.

 

Meet your neighbors

Unless your restaurant is secluded from the public, your restaurant soft opening is your first introduction to the neighborhood. And, as we all know, first impressions are lasting ones. So this event should present your restaurant’s value proposition in every facet of the event.

Perhaps your soft opening is a private event, opening the doors only to local merchants, fellow restaurant employees and other businesses. This immediately lets them know you’re a gracious and giving owner and are looking to contribute to the community, not take business away from their own establishments.

Even if you have bigger plans for the soft opening guest list, something as simple as a local business happy hour would go a long way toward creating goodwill with your new neighbors. Because if local businesses turn to you for after work entertainment and enjoyment, that’s an immediate group of regulars to build upon.

waitress tying on her apron

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Offer a cross-section of your menu

Because you’ll be juggling a lot of handshaking and problem solving during your restaurant soft opening, it’s probably best to limit your menu. (Besides, you want these guests to come back and see the rest of your surprises, no?)

Instead, pick a selection of menu items that best represent your restaurant’s brand identity – perhaps a signature burger or entree, alongside a specialty cocktail and a unique side dish. This will allow your kitchen staff to get better acquainted with the tools at their disposal, as well as the workflow, without becoming overwhelmed.

Not to mention, they can focus on making these signature dishes perfectly, to really impress your first customers. This will give them a chance to shine in front of waiting guests, while also becoming more familiar with the new menu.

Most importantly, the restaurant soft opening will also allow you to see which items might not be as successful as your target audience. If there’s a diverse spread of items, and one tray is completely untouched, that’s a good indicator that the selection isn’t right for your brand. Use this information to make last-minute tweaks before the actual opening day.

Don’t hide your pricing

When food is given away for free, people tend to be less critical. However, this does nothing for establishing an appropriate menu pricing strategy. When hosting your soft opening, keep the prices at the forefront, so you can get proper feedback on your plans. Perhaps those lamb sliders are divine… but maybe won’t sell at $21.95 for an appetizer portion.

One common strategy is to offer guests a 50% discount on food items alongside complimentary items (even drinks) throughout the evening. Though they will appreciate the discount, you will still receive better feedback as to which items will move most readily at those price points, better preparing you for the grand opening.

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Brad Bortone is a writer, editor and content marketer, published in areas ranging from content strategy to music reviews, and seemingly everywhere in between. Brad's love of the food industry began during his tenure with Johnson & Wales University's web team, writing countless pieces about - and enjoying countless lunches from - the school's esteemed culinary program.