To charge or not to charge...
August 25, 2011 3:57 AM   Subscribe

Any advice about restaurant soft openings?

Hello everyone,

I'm in the process of opening a restaurant and am now finally at the point where a real opening date is within sight.

I am considering a "preview" night for close friends and family of the staff, and then continue a public soft open period for a few days after that.

I've read on other sources on the internet that the friends and family night is typically a night where all food is offered for free, and even the drinks are discounted if they are even charged at all. But in exchange, a generous gratuity is left. In light of this economic climate, is this style of soft open still the norm? Would it be in poor taste to charge my guests on this preview night at all, even if the prices were drastically discounted and all guests were informed that there will be a nominal charge when the invites are sent out?

For now, my general inclination is to fix a uniformly low price for all menu items for our friends and family night, as we've already held extensive "focus panel" nights where all food and drink was served free of charge. Most of those invited for friends and family night will be the ones who previously attended one of our free menu testing nights. This time around, we're hoping to gauge the efficiency of our workflow and service.

If anyone here has experience conducting/attending a friends and family preview night, please give me some insight as to the best course of action.

Thank you in advance.
posted by slimceagirrl to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The 'preview' night (I'm not sure if it was called that) I attended a couple of years ago was a 'pay whatever you like' night. I seem to remember that it went quite well. That might be an alternative worth considering.

I've noticed that people are much more understanding now about things not being entirely free the way they would have been five or ten years ago.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:05 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

We've never charged for family and friends because so many things can go wrong, and these people are there for us to practice on.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:17 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

no restaurant experience here...

but wouldn't you want to charge some nominal price just to make sure the act of completing the transaction also gets some practice? Even if every item costs a dollar, then at least you're making sure items get entered into the sale system and credit cards get run properly and the cc machine is working.. and if it isn't? well then it's free.

If it were my restaurant, I'd want to make sure the test run is as realistic as possible.
posted by j03 at 4:42 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've never worked any kind of soft opening, but I've been with companies who did them. No matter how your restaurant takes payment, it'll likely be a little less than completely straightforward. If you charge even a nominal fee, your staff can get a feel for the process and start to work out some of the kinks.

Where I served/managed, they would initially "charge" everyone for everything whether or not a discount was already understood. Then they'd discount the heck out of it, using the opportunity to practice procedure for comps, coupons, etc. Since they'd then have record of all the free food they gave away, they got a feel for the business/accounting end of things. Even if you only take in a meager amount of money, you'll then have an easy opportunity to practice getting your money from your restaurant to the bank, how the back end of the credit card and check systems work etc.

Maybe consider, instead of a "family night," run an entire shift top to bottom. Tell your families/friends to come in whenever they feel inclined that day or make reservations if you'd accept them on a normal day. If you invite everyone in during a short period, your experience might be a little more like catering or throwing a party, which might not be the experience you really want.
posted by The Potate at 4:51 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've worked two soft openings in the last two years, and both were free of charge to the guests. For the first, everything was actually free of charge (a full service place). For the second, a counter-service franchise for which I do administrative work, the guests picked up $15 of monopoly-like money at the door- which both limited how much they could order, and allowed our cashiers practice with giving change and using the POS systems (as j03 notes above).

Both openings were resounding successes. Since the point of a soft opening is to iron out kinks in service, it seems likely that service will be less than perfect- and therefore, it would be ungracious to charge guests. At least that was the reasoning of the two organizations I work for.
posted by heyheylanagirl at 4:58 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first night -- friends and family -- really is practice, so we offered that one up for free. In fact, we made it real clear that it's practice (just like trainees giving free haircuts at fancy salons) and be grateful to guests and take lots of notes and understand traffic flow and expediting and all the processes and timing (not just the food part, obvi).

Next comes the slightly wider audience. We set a really low price, I think it was $15 a person for 3-courses, drinks charged at full price. We did a low-key promo (signs in the window, word-of-mouth, friends/family returned). Again, we were diligently studying the flow of everything, solicited lots of feedback from guests.

Third night, ideally a Saturday, we opened it up but still in soft-launch mode. Same prices but used more channels to cast the wider net. We had much higher expectations for the staff. This was a dress rehearsal. Again, solicited feedback and took it to heart.

Shut it down on Sunday and have a management meeting/workshop. Don't stick with stuff that didn't work, make changes, including in staff if you have to. Write it up, revise your earlier biz plan if you have to (how many covers are realistic, now that you've run it through?) Make an employee manual.

Remain closed on Monday but have a full staff meeting in a spic-and-span battle-ready space. Present results of the 3 "openings". Set forth expectations for the future. Read everyone the riot act on stuff taht didn't work, that must not happen, that must happen. Get opinions, you'll suss out the leaders on your team which is hugely helpful. Say thank you a lot and serve a GREAT meal, family style.

Open for reals, Tuesday dinner.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:50 AM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, sorry, meant to add, each night use comment cards -- mandatory.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:51 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like either 'pay what you like' or the 'charge and then refund' or the 'monopoly money' process...
posted by empath at 6:22 AM on August 25, 2011

As you've said, the norm is not to charge and that's what is pretty much being echoed in the responses you're getting. The issue with relying on heavy gratuities (or even a "pay what you like" night, as has been suggested) is that obviously you might not come out of this at a profit, but the point of preview night is to practice before opening, not to make a profit . Given that it sounds like you feel you've already given away a lot of food and that you probably need the money (or else you wouldn't ask), then you need to consider whether charging on preview night is better in the long run than not charging; in other words, if you don't charge on preview night will any losses be worth the long-term business of your restaurant, or is it really necessary for you to charge to cover costs this first night?

If you do decide to charge minimal costs to cover your ass, this should be made incredibly clear when inviting people to the preview night--ie make it clear that you will be charging, but not at profit.

A friendlier alternative might be to provide each guest with a certain amount in vouchers or "monopoly money" or whatever you like to be used to order food at full-cost off the regular menu. Anything they want to order beyond the amount they have in vouchers could be paid with real money.
posted by Polychrome at 6:46 AM on August 25, 2011

I went to a schmancy restaurant during their week-long soft opening. Everything was half-priced. Occasionally, we would get small plates that we had not asked for, gratis. Drinks were still the same price.
posted by Gilbert at 7:29 AM on August 25, 2011

For friends and family night, the only "charge" that really seems appropriate is to request that your guests provide you with copious feedback and to ask that they tell their friends. If you wanted to charge every item as a dollar so you can test the entire payment process, that seems reasonable though. You could also just charge all the checks to a dummy credit card number instead (the bank who set you up with your merchant gateway should have some provision for testing like this). Have a two-drink maximum or offer one drink per entree or a similar policy if you're worried about being taken advantage of in this department.

If someone does try to abuse your generosity, that's where you guys get to practice your managerial skills in dealing with customers. These people should all be actual friends and family (or you wouldn't have invited them, right?), so most people should behave. If a table of four tries to order eight entrees and six starters, you can just tell them that it's great they want to try so many different things, but it's the kitchen's first night all working together and you need to keep things to one starter+entree per person to keep things manageable for them. Or just say "dude, I can't waste that much food" and tell them to come back again and again when you're open.
posted by zachlipton at 10:37 AM on August 25, 2011

I don't have any restaurant experience but ... in this day and age of vicious Yelp reviews, I would be very careful that when you do the public soft opening, you make sure that your customers KNOW that it is a soft opening, intended to work out the kinks. Otherwise, some person will be annoyed that it took longer than usual to get their check, and they'll write something nasty online. I've definitely seen it happen on my local Yelp.
posted by yarly at 11:51 AM on August 25, 2011

If it is a private soft opening, I'd say make everything free except booze. That way your people get some practice ringing up orders as well, you'll bring in at least some money, and the vibe will be more like a real night out at a restaurant instead of like a wedding reception full of freeloaders who just want to get tanked.

If it is a public soft opening, make everything half price, and make sure everyone knows it is a soft opening so that you don't end up with a bunch of bad Yelp reviews before you even open your doors.

Good luck!
posted by spilon at 1:25 PM on August 25, 2011

I've helped to open two restaurants, in both of which I was an investor. I'd never do it again (invest in a restaurant, or help with an opening).

Forget "soft" openings. The only things that count are real customers, and how they pay, tip and return (or don't). Open, and agree to pay your servers enough to make up short tips they report, for non-service reasons. Be in the kitchen, be in the front of the house. If you've any sense, you won't need comment cards or tips from family members to know how things are working. Greet and talk with your diners. After close, analyze your orders, from checks. Analyze how your kitchen responded, by timing them, and by table/tip, and from your own observations. Analyze how service served, by short tip to full tip ratio, and your own observations, or those of your front of the house manager. Be aware of servers pocketing cash tips and trying to report undertipping, and fire any you find doing that, off the floor.

After one week, trim your menu, by half, on the least ordered items, and on any items where your gross is low. Let your kitchen (particularly if that's your grocery purchasing point) know that you're doing this, put out simpler menus in the front of the house, and adjust purchasing accordingly. In the second week, run specials on the lower 50% of items by revenue, if you want to keep your kitchen help sharp. Look for customers returning from the first week; if you don't recognize at least 5% returns, you better have a plan for living off of Groupon coupons...

If you're serving booze, and your booze ratio isn't better than 1/5 against food, find out why, immediately. If you've got space and time, try to increase this ratio in your bar, or by at table promotions. Booze is generally pretty profitable.

If any servers are reporting short tips, for house reasons, after two weeks, consider closing, if they're justified, or firing them, if not. It never takes more than two weeks to fix opening issues in food quality, service, or management problems in a restaurant, if you know what you're doing. And if you don't know what you're doing, two weeks in, you'll most likely be closed by the market a week or a month, or two, later.
posted by paulsc at 4:54 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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