Once upon a time, there was a used car lot with a tan building, some pavement, and a lot of fast, gray cars, as well as one Volkswagen with no engine and a sign that read, “Great mileage.”
One warm day, lightning cracked in the West and pretty soon a storm hit. It hailed ball bearings for a full three minutes. When it stopped, those cars looked like they had been attacked by a herd of church ladies protesting medical marijuana.
The last we heard of the used car lot owner, he was a Trappist monk campaigning for statehood for southern Arizona. They put up a “space available” sign on the tan building and everyone went back to their mucking.
One day, the mayor made an announcement: “Praise the potatoes and pass the Lord”—he usually got things backward—“a new fast-casual restaurant is coming to town.” Everyone said “yea” and went back to their mucking.
A year went by and work on the restaurant progressed at a pace like holding a match under a pot of molasses and waiting for it to boil. Finally, a banner went up on the tan building that read, “Opening Soon.” Well sir, so much time then went by that the “ing” and the “So” faded away and the blanks were never filled in.
Eventually, the restaurant owner announced that he was going to have a soft open. This is not the way to have a soft open.
The store was repainted a shade of … well, tan. The “space available” sign was never taken down. A very small banner with the unpronounceable name of the restaurant was draped across the top of the building and quickly folded over on itself.
The front door is on the side of the building and the windows are all darkened to the point of a black hole, so that no light can escape. When you walk in, there is no one to greet you, and if you do get a table, there are no set-ups. You wait forever for your drink order and longer for your food, as the server will stand in the center of the room and ask who ordered the emu in beurre blanc sauce. Half the menu is not available because, after all, it is a soft opening.
The décor is attractive and the food is pretty good, but getting the check is like asking the governor of Wisconsin to lead a union parade. The joke in town is that if you see a lot of cars there at 2 p.m., it is because they have been there since noon waiting for lunch. The town still awaits the Grand Opening, which brings up a point.
When are we going to get back to doing Grand Openings?
They were one of the most successful promotions McDonald’s ever did. Even if you have been in a location a while, put in some new geraniums and have a Grand Reopening.
Be at your absolute best. You have one chance or they will go back to their mucking. Pick a Saturday that will have perfect weather. Start out by serving breakfast to the town council. No one loves a free meal like the town council. Then enlist them to help out for the day, become regular folks, and, sure, do a little campaigning.
When you plan your grand opening, make sure you ask your crew for ideas on how to make it a success. And above all, ask them to make use of their social media to let all their friends know about the event. Ask your seniors to talk it up in their meetings, too. A couple of days before the event, have a crew meeting, go over the day’s action, and ask for their help in meeting the challenges of the day. Your manager and crew are most important to you. Make sure they feel they are very special.
Have something going every minute of the day. If there is a town celebrity, get him to appear and sign napkins. Have your own American Idol contest, or showcase crew with talents to entertain. Hang crew artwork on the walls. Have a contest to guess the number of french fries in a case. Get the classic car club to show up; they love free meals almost as much as the town council.
Donate the lunch-hour profit to a local school. Taste-test your food, and make sure it stays hot or cold. Do kitchen tours, but not at noon—that tends to really tick off the cook. Have the mayor raise the flag with a veteran color guard, but don’t let the mayor sing anything. Have a treasure chest that each kid reaches into, with a chance to win a pony. You will be the hit of that household.
Have face painting, but be careful you don’t hire the guy who does KISS. I saw that happen once. Kids loved it.
Make sure you have a greeter for the really busy hours. Reiterate your senior discount. Pair up with other noncompeting businesses around you and cross-promote. Theaters are especially happy to do this; show your movie ticket for a free meal and show your restaurant receipt for $1 off admission. Now that gas is $1 million a barrel, work with gas station owners, too. A little public relations may not solve the problem, but the owner can show his face again.
What are some things not to do? Make sure your vendors know that there are no deliveries that day. There’s nothing like a semi pulling onto the lot at noon with 17 cases of straws.
On the other hand, don’t run out of anything. Let it be said that a customer should never hear the words, “We’re out of tuna. Would you like squab?”
And finally, don’t do eating contests. I don’t know why we continue to run this goofy idea. The sight of grown men stuffing food down as fast as they can while humming a Gregorian chant should never be on anyone’s iPhone. The possible result of an eating contest is also something that should never be seen at your restaurant.
So soft openings are OK, just not too soft; don’t forget to turn on the “open” sign. And for the town council’s sake, have a Grand Opening. The mayor can never be too happy.
Happy Trails, and a Grand Peaceful Life. And say hi to your mom for me on her day. No restaurant will ever cook as well as she does.