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Executing Your Rock-Solid Restaurant Soft Opening

Executing Your Rock-Solid Restaurant Soft Opening

Originally Posted on FoodableTV – By Doug Radkey 07/26/2016

Planning, execution, consistency, adjustments, training, and timing. These are all keywords you will hear during the start-up phase of your new restaurant.

There is no better way to test your restaurant or bar on these keywords prior to “officially” opening other than what is called a “soft opening.”

What is a soft opening? It is a series of fully operational shifts over the course of 1-2 weeks prior to ‘officially’ opening, in which only pre-selected guests can enjoy your new establishment. Soft openings are essential for many reasons and need to be viewed as an integral part of your start-up strategy.

It is an opportunity to review the fine details of your service standards, communication systems, and point-of-sale systems – along with your food & beverage timing and presentation standards (expediting).

A soft opening also gives you an opportunity to review lighting, sound, signage, and any possible confusion within your menu. It gives you an opportunity to make adjustments before it truly counts.

Skipping this stage is setting yourself, your staff, your suppliers, and your investors up for failure. Imagine adjusting the above after you’ve opened and after customers have left poor reviews? Here are some tips to consider for your soft opening to make it, and your restaurant, a success!

Goals.

As with anything you do in business, it’s best to have a predetermined set of goals. What do you want to achieve with your soft opening? For example, how many hours of practice do you want your service staff to accumulate, how many platings do you want your kitchen staff to prepare, or which stations may need the most attention before you open to the general public?

Remember that this is all about training, adjusting, and monitoring the systems you should have put in place.

Pro Tip: Create a soft opening checklist with a scoring chart and then go over these benchmarks with your management team and front-line employees. Communication is essential to ensure you’re all working towards the same set of goals.

Budget.

Ensure you have developed a budget for a soft opening in your start-up expenses. Spending money here will save spending double to triple the costs after you’ve opened in needing to fix potential mistakes. Consider food and beverage costs, staff costs, special invite costs, and/or special giveaways for your invited guests.

Pro Tip: Work with community partners and suppliers to receive samples and to reduce your soft opening costs. They are often willing to assist you because they want to build a long-term relationship with you and your restaurant.

Menu. 

There are a couple of ways to look at this. You could offer limited items to test on certain days of the soft opening, or you can offer your full menu each of the days. It also depends on the size of your menu. However, let’s hope you’re already following the need for smaller, more compact menus.

Pro Tip: It’s best to offer your full menu. This is what you will be offering your customers once you open, so get the practice now for service, timing, and point-of-sale use.

Pricing.

There is no winning price-point formula for soft openings, but generally, your food options and non-alcohol related beverages should be at least 50 percent off or free, and alcohol related beverages should be full price (which may be a requirement by law, depending on your region).

Pro Tip: If properly planned & budgeted for, offer your food menu for free. In return, ask guests to leave a donation to a pre-selected charity ‘to pay’ for their meal. Then during your grand opening week, present the local charity with a cheque. This creates an immediate community relationship plus an opportunity for free media exposure!

Guests. 

Consider privately inviting your close friends and family, plus any of your employees’ immediate family members and others who have helped you through this journey, for the first 1-2 soft opening shifts. They will be the least hard on you if there are early-stage mistakes. You should also consider inviting any contractors, suppliers, city officials, and public service workers throughout your soft opening period. It’s best to have a day off in between each shift to remedy any mistakes and allow for proper preparation.

Pro Tip: You want to slowly increase the number of invites. For example, if you have a 60-seat restaurant, on the first night, host 20 guests over two hours. The next night, 30 over three hours, and the next night, 50 over two hours. Gradually build it up to ease your service staff and kitchen into it. By the final night, your team should be prepared to consistently deliver a full house.

Team Meetings.

Before each soft opening shift, brief your staff on the specifics of what you’re looking for that shift, what they should work on, and the goals for the shift. After each soft opening shift, debrief with your staff and go through the checklist scores, plus any customer reviews from that shift.

Pro Tip: Engage with your staff; ask them what challenges and successes they each endured! They will offer a different point of view from that of yourself and your invited guests.

Bonus Pro Tips: Ensure all guests receive a way to leave feedback for you, whether through a comment card or special website link. Make adjustments as you see fit during the off days in between soft opening shifts. Try to deter guests from leaving social media reviews. (Unless of course, it’s 100% positive.) 

Lastly, have a social media-only night near the end of your soft opening period for a select number of guests, such as a contest through your Facebook page. This will help generate online buzz prior to officially opening.

Following these steps and maximizing these pro-tips will undoubtedly ensure you have a rock-solid soft opening that will leave your restaurant prepared for opening day and the many days after. Remember, you don’t get a second chance for a first impression. Make it count!

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Strategies to Save Time & Money During Start-Up

Strategies to Save Time & Money During Start-Up

Originally Posted on FoodableTV – By Doug Radkey 07/12/2016

Going through the motions of starting your first restaurant requires an incredible amount of time and financial management.  Discovering opportunities to save on both will effectively result in less stress and a generous opening day budget.

Effective Planning

Before officially getting ‘started’, ensure that you complete a feasibility study, concept development plan, and business development plan. Although developing these can be time consuming (approximately 30-45 days, sometimes more) it will allow you and your potential investor to avoid financial pitfalls.

Feasibility study | This study informs you whether to move forward with your dream restaurant / bar or if you should re-evaluate your idea to fit and support the specific market space and start-up budget.

Concept development | This plan gives your proposed venue an identity with visual design components and a list of potential suppliers and contractors that can execute your vision in addition to the framework for your menu and the equipment that’s going to be required.

Business development | Outlines your action plan; including the details of your restaurant, the permits you will need, the time-frame for completion, operational strategies, marketing strategies, and the venues overall budget and financial projections for the next 3-5 years.

Saving Time

During start-up you want to save time, but you don’t want to cut corners or take uneducated shortcuts leading to future complications. Utilize and trust your developed plans and any expert advice.

Supporting Cast | First and foremost, don’t try to do everything yourself. Whether you’re building a small bistro or a large full-service 150 seat restaurant, you want to build a supporting cast and delegate tasks based on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Pro Tip: Work with someone who has ‘been there, done that’ in terms of starting a restaurant, for example a consultant, development agency, or close friend to be used as a mentor.

Checklists | Complete a start-up milestone checklist with S.M.A.R.T time-frames for completion, in addition to listing who is responsible, and the budget for each task. 

Pro Tip:  Hold weekly meetings and consider using an online project management dashboard to promote effective communication and organization within your start-up team.

Saving Money

Money management during start-up is vital. Numerous start-up restaurants overspend during this stage leading to a delay in opening, zero to minimal funds for marketing & advertising, minimal funds for training (paying) staff, or a combination of the three.

Hire an Accountant | Prior to signing a lease or hiring a contractor, build a relationship with a trusted accountant. This is your opportunity to stay on-top of budgets and control your spending.  

Pro Tip: Hold weekly meetings with your accountant to review, adjust, and then communicate the financial status with the entire start-up team.

Lease negotiations | First, always review your lease with a lawyer. Look for additional concessions, for example:  ‘free rent’ opportunities (for renovation period + first operating month), lease transfer opportunities (in case the restaurant fails), and negotiate other property maintenance & fixture costs (ex. air ventilation systems).  

Pro Tip: When seeking a new location, ensure it is feasible to be zoned for food service operations prior to signing.

Permits & licenses | Receive all of your permits and city requirements by visiting your municipal clerks’ office. Review federal, regional, and municipal requirements for operating a commercial food service business. Receiving a surprise infraction two weeks prior to opening can be costly and detrimental to your start-up. Receive each permit’s time-frame for approval, its initial fees, and any ongoing or future fees. 

Pro Tip: Work with a trusted architect who understands commercial food service requirements and building codes to complete drawings that will be quickly approved by your municipality.

Contractors & vendors | Ask nearly all experienced restaurateurs and most will say their largest headache was contractors. The most ideal situation is to hire an experienced general contractor that will lead a team of plumbers, electricians, mill-workers, HVAC professionals, and fire safety specialists through the project while managing the renovation budget. The best practice is to receive 2-3 or more quotes based on a specific and similar ‘job scope’ while measuring their level of experience, value, references, and overall cost. 

Pro Tip: Though you’re likely on a tight budget, don’t always go with the least expensive option. Sometimes, it will lead to higher costs or project delays later on.

Kitchen & Bar Equipment | A key tip to remember is that not all of your equipment needs to be brand new. Consider used prep tables, deep fryers, and lightly used refrigeration & freezer units. Depending on your start-up budget, consider equipment leasing opportunities versus purchasing upfront. There are pros and cons to this strategy in terms of assets, depreciation, and tax write-offs so it is best to work with your accountant. 

Pro Tip: Ensure your menu concept is developed and a chef is part of the kitchen & bar development process to ensure maximum efficiency in terms of food & beverage production.

Menu Development |  Customers today are seeking smaller menus; ensure that you engineer a small menu with re-purposed raw ingredients;  leading to less waste, easier training, and reduced start-up inventory costs. 

Pro Tip: Discuss payment terms with your food & beverage suppliers and don’t be afraid to ask for samples to reduce start-up training costs.

HR Management | Refrain from hiring your entire kitchen and front-of-house team until you have a very clear start date. This is likely 3-5 weeks prior, allowing for effective training, and for administrative tasks to be completed. Hiring your team too early will lead to increased administrative costs and time in potentially needing to re-hire. 

Pro Tip: Holding a job fair not only assists in time management, but if you execute it in an organized manner, it also works as a marketing tool to develop community awareness for your new restaurant.

POS Systems | Ensure you set aside a budget for a point-of-sale system prior to opening. It is surprising how often this is overlooked. 

Pro Tip: Look for speed and user friendliness plus a detailed revenue, staffing, & inventory report system that provides customer service support and no hidden costs for future POS updates.

Effectively using this list will undoubtedly save you and your start-up team hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in unexpected costs; leading to a larger and speedier return on investment.

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