Should Restaurants Bother With Soft Openings Anymore?

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We've been asking ourselves this question for a while now: Aren't "soft openings" an out-of-date concept in an age when it's virtually impossible to open a restaurant without the whole city being aware of it? Yes, restaurants often need a few weeks to ramp up to a certain level of quality and service, but it's no longer realistic to assume that you won't be judged from day one. Given that it could be detrimental to expose a new venture to a quick-fingered Yelper's criticism before it's ready, small restaurants are under the gun to host multiple friends-and-family-type affairs just to work out a few kinks, losing money but potentially saving themselves some embarrassment.

In San Francisco, we've been keeping an eye on Leopold's (2400 Polk Street), a small Italian-Austrian eatery that seems to have softly opened last week, even though the owners insist they won't be open until the end of the month — last night they hosted an invite-only event, and they've yet to divulge a hard-opening date. So far they've managed to keep off the Yelpers' radar, however not every restaurant is so lucky. In Chicago, Graham Elliott had to call bullshit after a Yelper panned his restaurant Grahamwich before it had even opened, forcing Yelp to begin prohibiting advance reviews. That hasn't stopped the Yelp Elite member who was invited to one of two test dinners this week at Dominique Crenn's as-yet-unopened Atelier Crenn. Said Yelper already penned this five-star rave — less out of journalistic urgency, we imagine, than out of a burning desire for firsties. As San Francisco publicist Jared Rivera points out, "There is no 'soft-opening' box to check on a Yelp review."

Are such preview dinners even worth it, given that they mean giving away free food and the risk of allowing a covert critic into the house? Or should a restaurant simply stay closed long enough to train the staff in a tightly guarded vacuum before letting in the floodgates of bloggers and Twitter-happy eaters. Bi-coastal restaurant publicist Andrew Freeman says, "There is incredible value in preopening events for building buzz in the industry, and getting your peers excited about what's coming up." But New York restaurateur Gabe Stulman, who just opened Fedora two weeks ago in the West Village, calls friends-and-family events "phony" and a waste of money, and he skipped the soft-opening stage altogether. As he tells Zagat, "I don’t understand restaurants that stand there and feed people free food — OK, your waiters got to walk around the room for a week, but I don’t have that much money. I can’t afford to give away free food for a week for our cooks and waiters to practice." He acknowledges, however, that he let paying customers in to watch a "dress rehearsal," but he doesn't care. (Sounds like the Spider-Man musical!)

New York's Waverly Inn took a tongue-in-cheek approach, making fun of the whole concept of a restaurant opening by printing the words "PREVIEW MENU" in red across the top of their menus and leaving them there to this day, more than four years after their Über-exclusive opening in 2006.

Maybe skipping the soft opening works best in New York, where there's always a ravenous horde of plugged-in foodies to fill a restaurant's opening months. But some would argue that that sort of confidence can backfire faster than ever these days and keep a fledgling restaurant from even getting off the ground. Rivera points to the "loaded pipeline of diner anticipation" that comes with preopening buzz on the web, which often results in a packed house on opening night: "In theory, it sounds like an ideal scenario and in some cases it is. But the restaurant industry is unique, and restaurants require operational experience and a lot of feedback from customers in order to reach their full potential." He points out that only the most expensive, corporate-backed restaurants can afford weeks of training before opening, and laments the rapid death of the comment card in the last five years owing to the growth in online media. He says that diners (and Yelpers) need to be sensitive in rushing toward a heavily pre-publicized, brand-new restaurant, because "there's a good chance that restaurant is not prepared for the influx of business it's about to experience."

One recent cautionary tale of too much early buzz: Pop-up ramen-maker Richie Nakano, who perhaps overused social media to hype the debut of Hapa Ramen in S.F. last summer, only to have a nightmarish opening night with technical difficulties in the kitchen and an enormous crowd he couldn't feed. The next day he woke up to to find that all these online outlets had immediately become "tools of negativity." Says young chef-owner Teague Moriarty of Sons & Daughters, who managed to open last June for about a week without any blog attention, and subsequently became a critical darling after a few months of quiet buzz, "We debated for a long time before opening whether or not we should arrive with a bang, and I'm glad we decided to go with a whimper."

So hear ye, hear ye, unopened restaurants! The choice is simple: You either court preopening buzz and risk some negative chatter at the outset, or you tell no one and attempt to operate in complete radio silence for your opening weeks, which we only recommend for advanced players.