Features

The problem with soft openings

These restaurateurs lay down the pros and cons

Photo by Yong Chuan/Unsplash

It comes as a warning, usually jet-printed on a piece of A4 paper. It is taped on the glass door so there’s no chance for you to miss it. “We are on soft opening” it usually says. For the customers, it’s understood as an advance apology—service might not be as snappy as expected; orders could come, sometimes they might not; and if the food is served cold or missing a few ingredients, the kitchen might be lacking despite its best efforts. “Soft opening” usually translates to “we hope you love us, but if we suck, please understand that we’re new.”

In our country, where the culture is mostly forgiving of mediocrity, there’s that other end of the spectrum that has a false sense of entitlement (“customer is always right”). Nothing strikes fear in a greenhorn manager more than an unhappy customer, and these days, you’re lucky if this displeasure ends in the dining room. Many times this anger is vented on social media, or when they’re really out to get you, vengeful customers have Yelp or Zomato, where they can slam your newly opened shop with a bad review.

In our country, where the culture is mostly forgiving of mediocrity, theres that other end of the spectrum that has a false sense of entitlement.

This is probably why most restaurant owners have used “soft openings” as a sort of buffer to gently ease them into normal operations, hoping that customers will be more understanding of the little kinks that need ironing out. Perfectly acceptable, since we are fully aware of the oftentimes impossible balancing act it takes to operate a restaurant. But, with most establishments charging full price for food and drinks yet expecting patience for what could most probably be a substandard experience—is this actually fair?

Restaurateur Cristina Imperial Carl has recently opened three restaurants in rapid succession—Grind Burger at SM North Edsa, the dressed-up Grind Bistro at Net Park, and SM Aura’s Grind Bistro + Cafe—and she sure doesn’t think so. She and her husband Steven allowed two weeks of soft opening for their restaurants, but this was a luxury that they themselves paid for. “We didn’t include service charge (in the bill) while we ironed out service issues,” she says. She does admit that this period allows a new establishment to “fine-tune service as well as menu offerings. It also gives the restaurant a chance to tweak items that may need refinement.”

Some restaurant owners, though, don’t believe in “soft openings” altogether. Eric Dee—owner of Foodee Global Concepts, the company behind Mesa, Todd English Food Hall, Tim Ho Wan, Llao Llao, and FOO’D by Davide Oldani—calls it “a cop-out,” a practice abused by restaurant owners who just can’t seem to get it together. “This is why we don’t do soft openings.”

Dee observed, too, that soft openings are not only abused by some restaurateurs but also by guests. Inconsistencies in the kitchen and lapses in service, although expected during this period, are not always forgiven. “The customer is always right. It might be a cliché but it is the golden rule. And during soft openings is when this statement is tested the most.”

Soft openings are a “cop-out,” says Eric Dee. “This is why we don’t do soft openings.”

However, Carl is more understanding of the varying struggles that each business owner encounters. “Some restaurants may have extended soft opening due to different reasons. For example, it may be because they haven’t gotten all their supplies for the kitchen or front of the house; or maybe the signage hasn’t arrived; or perhaps they’re having unforeseen problems with operations.” She also points out a rather valid explanation: “Unfortunately, the realities of overhead costs for rent and salaries may force restaurants to open sooner than they would really like just to generate some income.”

As in every business, there are different styles and ideologies that restaurateurs adhere to. The industry has so many moving variables that even old-timers are faced with new obstacles in a landscape that is always changing and evolving. The Carls, although relatively new in the Philippine market but experienced going through three restaurant openings within five months, say it simply. “I think we have learned that there is no right or wrong way to open. It just depends on the restaurant and its own circumstances.”

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