Opening a new restaurant or store isn’t an easy task. There’s a ton of preparation that goes into launching any new location. How do you deal with it all? One approach is having a soft opening.

Before you let guests come streaming into your new location, you’re going to want to train and prepare as much as possible. A soft opening is one way you can prepare your staff and refine your operations in a more comfortable setting.

So what goes into planning a soft opening and how will it benefit your business? In this article, we’re going to show you how you can pull off an effective soft opening. 

When your grand opening arrives, you’ll be ready to shine.

What is a soft opening?

A soft opening is like a trial-run for opening a restaurant or other customer-facing business. Businesses use soft openings to prepare their staff before officially opening to the general public.

Soft opening events are typically invitation-only so you can decide who gets to test out your dining or retail concept before the rest of the world. You can invite friends, family and even local media to get their insight on what being a customer is like.

After all your hard work planning for opening day, it’s important to get real feedback from your future clientele. Soft openings are the perfect opportunity to hear what potential customers think so you can make any tweaks before officially launching.

Soft openings are popular in the restaurant space, but they’re handy for other types of businesses, like retail stores, as well. Whatever your business, here are some reasons to consider a soft opening before your big day.

How a soft opening can benefit your restaurant or shop

Soft openings have several benefits for a business. They generate buzz around your new restaurant and give you time to make corrections before your launch.

The main benefit, though, is preparation.

A soft opening gives your staff an opportunity to work in a simulated setting. It’s just like the real thing—except the environment is more controlled.

If mistakes are made, that’s okay. It’s not nearly as bad as it would be with real customers.

You can work out all the kinks in advance. This can help relieve some of the stress associated with your grand opening. After all, you’ve done this before.

To make sure you get actionable feedback from the event, ask attendees to share about their experience. You might have a card with questions at checkout or on the table. Or you can send an online survey they fill out later.

For best results, try to collect the feedback before they leave.

Used properly, soft openings will also create hype around your business. Attendees will spread the news that there’s a new place in town worth checking out. Consider inviting other business owners, members of the media or local influencers to ensure word spreads.

A soft opening will give you the best chance of launching your new location with minimal miscues or mistakes. Wouldn’t you like to feel 100% prepared and confident you’ll launch your new location without any problems?

How to prepare for your soft opening

There are a few details you need to figure out before you have your soft opening. Specifically, you need to determine your guest list, dates, menu (or product) offerings and pricing details.

Build an invitation list

The first thing you’ll need to do is determine who to invite to your soft opening.

Friends and family are always a great choice, but try to include others, too.

Friends and family are great because they’ll be understanding of minor hiccups. They’ll also be more likely to give you feedback. Encourage them to be honest. You want to hear both the positive and negative.

You can also invite local business owners to your soft opening. This spreads some goodwill in your community and lets you network. This could lay the groundwork for future partnerships with other businesses as you grow.

You might even invite members of the media or influencers for a sneak peek. This can be risky since it will be your first day in operation. But if all goes as planned, you could have a big payoff in the form of news coverage or wide-reaching exposure on social media.

Decide how many days you’ll run your soft opening

There are different strategies that restaurant and shop owners use when conducting their soft opening. Some will have a soft opening on one day only. Others will set aside a few days to test out different aspects of their new location. 

For example, a restaurant could do a soft opening over the course of three days. On one day, you can feature dinner entrees and appetizers. On another day, you could focus on your lunch menu. On the last day, showcase your breakfast menu.

This lets you test all your offerings. It also gives your staff more than one day of training before officially opening.

The more you practice, the higher the probability you’ll succeed when it’s the real deal.

Create a menu or plan for your soft opening

Some restaurants offer limited menus for soft openings. Others prefer to feature their entire menu. This is entirely up to you.

Decide what you want to accomplish.

If you’re testing new menu items, we’d recommend having a limited menu focused only on the new dishes. This will help you hone in on each individual dish and get feedback from your diners. You’ll be able to pick out winners and losers more easily and can optimize your menu.

If your official opening date is shortly after the soft opening, then you may want to feature your full menu.

Offering your entire menu to guests means that you’ll need to be able to handle more complexities and variables. If your team is able to provide guests with a great experience preparing dishes from your entire menu, then they’re surely ready.

You won’t have a menu if you’re opening a new retail location. Instead, you may want to focus on certain aspects of service. For example, you can hone in on customer service on one day of your soft opening. On another day, you could focus on upselling customers in a way that’s helpful rather than coming across as salesy.

Determine pricing details

There are three pricing strategies you can consider—free, discounted or full price. You need to decide how much you’re willing to spend to organize your soft opening.

Giving your diners free food will obviously be costly, but the cost can be offset by the value you gain from your soft opening. A successful soft opening will practically pay for itself.

Going the free route will increase your chances of filling all the seats in your restaurant. It can also increase goodwill and customer loyalty with your target audience since you aren’t charging them anything.

A full-price menu will limit how much you’re spending on your soft opening. The downside is that it may be hard to attract guests to come out to a brand new restaurant and pay full-price. It also doesn’t make your guests feel special since you’re not cutting them a deal.

You should at least hand out some freebies to entice or thank customers.

A discounted menu is a happy medium between free and a full-priced menu. It lets you offset the costs so you aren’t paying for everything out of pocket. Plus, it still makes guests feel special as they’re receiving a discounted meal.

The same goes for a retail store. Giving away a bunch of products can be very costly. However, you want to provide an incentive for people to show up. Discounted products will encourage people to come to your soft opening without breaking the bank.

Collect feedback and improve your business

We can’t stress this enough. The whole point of having a soft opening is to improve your business and make last-minute changes before opening to the public.

You can collect feedback in a few different ways. One way is to talk to your guests during the soft opening. This can bring out insights through casual conversation. However, some guests may not feel as inclined to give you honest feedback if they have negative input.

Anonymous feedback surveys can really help. Print surveys and put them on every table or at checkout. You can incentivize honest feedback by offering discounts on future visits to your restaurant or shop in exchange for completed surveys.

It’s best to collect feedback right away while on-site. This ensures the information is fresh in their minds. If this isn’t possible, email surveys are a great fall-back option.

Once you have a stockpile of first impressions and ideas for improvement, you can take action on them.

There’s nothing more valuable than constructive feedback from your target customers.

Open your restaurant or store with confidence

A store or restaurant soft opening helps identify weak points so you can improve on them before it’s too late. You may have to offer some sort of discount, but think of it like an insurance policy for your real opening date.

Remember to collect as much feedback as possible. Then take this feedback and improve your business where you see necessary. This helps you increase the chances of success on your official launch date.

Follow the suggestions above for peace of mind as your grand opening nears. And that’s something you can’t put a price tag on.

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