5 Problems to Work Out During Your Restaurant’s Soft OpeningPerfect your kitchen timing, communications and guest experience before your official launch.
As you gear up to open a new restaurant, you’re busy finalizing the menu, hiring and training the staff and putting the finishing touches on the space. Things seem to be shaping up, but you never know what challenges will arise once guests start to walk through the door.
Enter the soft opening — a pre-opening phase that allows you to iron out any kinks before officially opening your doors to the public. But with so many things to think about, which problems should you focus on fixing during a soft opening?
It all comes down to the guest experience, said Stephanie Northcutt, director of Texas offices at R Public Relations, who helps restaurants move from their soft opening to the official launch.
“The soft opening is really the chance to test your concept on a select group of people you trust to get constructive feedback and make improvements,” she said.
Here, Northcutt shares the top problems that arise during a restaurant’s soft launch and offers her advice on how to resolve them before your grand opening.
Timing can make or break a guest’s experience at a restaurant. During the soft opening, restaurants need to develop a strategy to ensure meals are paced well and all food arrives at the table hot, said Northcutt.
“It revolves around the POS system and learning how tickets get entered by servers and come out in the kitchen,” she said.
Each part of your staff plays a special role in managing the timing of meals. The waitstaff may need to stagger when they input orders for appetizers, entrees and desserts, and keep the kitchen informed on the table’s status. The kitchen staff will need to manage preparation and plating to make sure an entire party’s meals hit the table at the same time.
“Some dishes cook extremely quickly, while others take a lot longer,” Northcutt explained. “So there’s a lot going on for timing, and the staff needs to determine how long it takes to cook and plate.”
Ideally, by the end of your soft opening, your servers and cooks will understand how to coordinate the timing of meals.
Memorizing the ins and outs of the menu is a major responsibility for servers. But knowing the ingredients is only half of the job — they also need to understand how to describe meals and make recommendations, said Northcutt.
“Being able to speak about the menu is something that needs to happen during soft openings. How do you talk about a dish that makes me want to order it?”
The soft opening is the first chance servers have to test their meal descriptions and guide guests toward foods they’ll hopefully love, she added. She recommended encouraging guests at your soft launch to ask a lot of questions to help the waitstaff get up to speed on what to expect from the general public.
“It’s a great opportunity to make sure the entire staff knows the menu forward and backward.”
No matter how hard you try, you will never give every guest at your restaurant the perfect experience. But when something does go wrong, how do you deal with it? Refining your customer service is key during your soft opening, said Northcutt.
“How will you handle someone who’s had to wait longer than they expected? What if someone’s food isn’t up to par? This is the time to work through these situations as a staff and understand how to manage them properly once you open up to the public,” she said.
Guests at the soft opening will be more forgiving than the general public. Use their patience to your advantage by helping staff learn how to interact with a dissatisfied customer and work as a team to solve problems that come up.
“It’s about hearing the customer and decoding what they’re saying, not just at the surface but at the root,” said Northcutt. “It might require adjustments from many parts of your staff to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.”
Roles and responsibilities
Every restaurant staff has similar job titles, like host, server, head chef and dishwasher. But the actual responsibilities charged to those roles can vary from one place to the next. Everyone needs to understand their duties before your restaurant opens to the public, said Northcutt.
“You might already have clearly defined job descriptions, but the human element really defines the roles,” she said. “Everyone needs to distinguish themselves.”
This is especially important with managerial roles. They must establish their authority as the go-to place for the rest of the staff when they need help or decisions need to be made, said Northcutt.
“When you’ve been training to be a front-of-house manager, but haven’t had any customers at the restaurant yet, it’s still something you’re working on. The soft opening is the time to figure it out.”
How do you want guests to feel at your restaurant? What do you want them to think after they leave? Use your soft opening to define the intended guest experience at your restaurant.
“Test your theories on hospitality and get guest feedback to establish the right experience for your venue,” Northcutt advised.
Collect feedback from soft-opening guests, either on note cards or an online form, and see which areas need improvement and what’s resonating most, she said. Learning from the customers during the soft opening is the ultimate way to deliver an experience guests will love.
“The soft opening is really a trial run,” she said. “Make some tweaks, then it’s just the polish on the shoes before you’re ready to open your doors.”
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