You’ve outfitted the restaurant, hired and trained the staff, and carefully calculated the budget. Your restaurant business plan is bulletproof and your five-year plan is completely feasible. Moreover, you’ve already made a dent in the market, and people are asking everyday how soon until they can come see you. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel, but at the same time, you’re hoping to break the mold with successful restaurant openings.
It’s time to open the doors and get the ball rolling. But how does anyone have a great opening? The fact is that few restaurants do. A solid restaurant opening is often like a successful plane trip – the best thing that can be said is that everyone walks away from it. Some of the great restaurants in the business have bombed during the opening week. You’re hoping yours won’t be the next in a long line of Opening Night bombs.
How to avoid the bombs? A few tips can keep the ship upright during the choppiest waters.
Lower Your Expectations
It can be hard to keep an eye on the big picture when Opening Night finally arrives, especially after months of capital investment (and more capital investment), building relationships, hiring, training, preparing, more preparing, etc. The point is that you might be ready for your restaurant to hit a homerun, but the world may not be ready for your restaurant.
It’s always a good idea to lower expectations, and to be ready to remind yourself of those lowered expectations. Great businesses take time to develop, especially in an established market, complete with diners that have established dining habits. It can take years to break into a full market, even for the best restaurateurs. Be prepared and hunker down.
The Soft Open
The first night of a restaurant’s life should be a like Little League baseball – friends and family only. If possible, it’s a good idea to have two nights like this, in which regular dinner service is provided by invitation only for free. The idea is to iron out the kinks as quickly as possible. Staff should be prepared to stick around at the end of the night to review what went right and what blew up.
Open feedback from customers can also be a great tool in the first weeks. The soft open is all about trial-and-error – from the standpoint of the product, the staff, restaurant flow, everything. You’ve envisioned the dining room full of customers for months (or longer). The soft open creates a friendly environment and helps you see the operation in action for the first time.
The Limited Open
Do yourself a favor. If at all possible, just open for dinner for the first month. Opening for dinner is like a batter who chokes up against a tough pitcher. A staff can easily get run into the ground during the opening weeks, especially during the process of weeding out employees and learning from mistakes.
A limited open goes hand-in-hand with a limited menu that features what the kitchen does best, along with items that minimize food cost and offer the biggest margin. A limited menu should not be too limited – the menu does offer the scope of the restaurant and provides a lasting impression to first-time guests. But slight limits provide a happy medium between keeping it simple and offering a wide scope.
Be Ready to Spend More
There’s no way to anticipate every need the restaurant will have after Opening Night. Problems and challenges arise that couldn’t have been foreseen. In my time in the business, I’ve seen restaurants open without remembering to outfit the kitchen with triple-sinks, or fail to set walk-in thermostats appropriately for frequent door-openings, and much worse.
My favorite story was the restaurant with vaulted ceilings and 16-foot high windows, whose owners neglected to buy blinds. Customers facing the windows – of which nearly half were – found themselves blinded for nearly an hour during the waning, early evening sun.
Opening a restaurant is about learning from mistakes and beginning the process of getting better. Consider Opening Night as a baseline, and remember that it can only get better.