Restaurant soft openings are practice runs, so don’t complain!

by steve on April 1, 2016

I love restaurant soft openings, but not for the food or even the drink. I like seeing the excitement in the eyes of owners who’ve worked their brains loose trying to get their vision from blueprint to fruition. I appreciate the risks required to move from a well-capitalized business to modestly liquid before a paying customer is served. I also love hearing the pre-opening horror stories and then congratulating them on getting to the starting line in one piece. Those are mighty fine feel-good moments.

Steve Coomes. | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

Steve Coomes. | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

I like that everything is new and shiny and clean, that employee uniforms match—or at least are “correct to theme.” The feeling I get when eating at a new restaurant is akin to that of buying a new car, only the aroma of cooking food is far more pleasant and the meal less costly.

But I’m long past the dubious thrill of “getting there first” since the first experience can be the worst experience one may have in a restaurant. It is just a soft opening after all and employees are in training mode, so I expect some rough edges. It’s a rare “softy” that goes really well, which is why operators generally pick up the tab (save for alcohol, since Uncle Sam gets his star-spangled skivvies in a wad over untaxed drinks.)

It doesn’t hurt my feelings either to be invited to such events. I’m flattered each and every time. Be it passively implied or deliberately acknowledged, it says, to some extent, that what I will write about that restaurant matters to someone, even if it’s read by just one restaurateur and three to five people killing time at work.

But what I don’t love about soft openings is the lack of some guests’ flexibility. No one is a paying customer at a soft opening, they’re invited guests, which implies the use of certain social conventions, such as grace. This is especially troubling when veterans of such events quibble and quack over service being slow or having to wait a few minutes past their scheduled seating time or seeing their dish arrive with a less-than-camera-ready look. It’s just practice, people, so lighten up!

Some complain about the view from their tables or their server’s style or the operator’s suggestion that they order only certain things on the menu. Somehow it’s lost on such entitled sorts that this is staff training for the cooks, too, a scheduled fire drill designed to test the mettle of a new crew before the joint opens to the public.

Worse, some of these chronic complainers don’t know how to tip at soft openings. Just because the check reads “$0.00” doesn’t mean a tip of $0 or $5 or $10 is sufficient. The expected gratuity is 15 percent or more (I usually start at 20 percent) of the total of the items on the check, the food and drinks consumed by your table. Though it’s a training period, the cooks are on the clock, and the servers are working for tips as if it were an ordinary day. It’s as real as it gets to them.

I also don’t like the abundance of calories consumed at these events. Yet that’s not a criticism of the restaurant, it’s an acknowledged job hazard. ​Successful as I’ve become at just nibbling at this or that, too many tiny tastes still add up to more than I’d eat at home or during a normal restaurant visit. My body eventually signals, “Seriously? Another bite of dessert? Haven’t you learned yet?” and before I know it, I’m clutching my right side (this trade has ruined my gallbladder) and wincing a bit.

In all, I’m fortunate to do this for a living, especially when someone is so gracious to foot the bill. And as far as I see it, that leaves me no right to complain on a shakedown run.

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