din­ers, be­ware

Are restau­rant “soft open­ings” nec­es­sary? De­pends who you ask

F&B World - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Photo by JAC­QUES DEMARTHON/ AFP Text by JA­CLYN CLE­MENTE-KOPPE

Should cus­tomers be more for­giv­ing dur­ing a restau­rant’s “soft open­ing” phase?

It comes as a warn­ing, usu­ally jet­printed 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.

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.”

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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