Opening a restaurant is a complex ballet of moving partsIt involves the coordination of architects; engineers; designers; contractors; construction material suppliers; regulatory agencies; food, equipment and supplies purveyors; computer, POS and office management system providers; your professional support team of attorneys, accountants, graphic designers, marketers; and you and your staff.

Somehow, it all comes together: The facility is nearly finished, and you’re a few weeks away from opening day. But are you really ready to open? 

“A premature opening can be incredibly detrimental to your brand,” says foodservice consultant Karen Malody, FCSI, owner and principal of Culinary Options, Seattle. “Many people don’t give themselves enough time to do training and last-minute testing of all their procedures and systems to make sure they work properly.” 

In this report 

On the pages that follow, we take you through the most important ways to ensure a smooth restaurant opening. While there will always be surprises, smart and careful planning can help you avoid predictable mistakes, anticipate any hiccups and be ready if any occur. 

Build Delays Into The Schedule 

You can build time contingencies into your budget in the same way you put aside a contingency fund for cost overruns. But some delays can be prevented if you think ahead and plan events into the schedule before you actually need them done.  

“A typical delais when something doesn’t arrive on time, such as a piece of equipment or small wares,” says Malody. I once had a client who forgot to order cutlery. I’ve seen cases where even plates and tableware didn’t arrive on time.” 

Equipment failure due to improper installation or a defect can cause delays, too. That’s easy enough to fix, first by using qualified restaurant equipment installers such as those provided by dealers like Central Restaurant Products or certified installers or service agents, and second by scheduling equipment startup, testing and calibration far enough in advance to give you time to replace anything that doesn’t work properly. 

Health, building and fire department final inspections should be scheduled several weeks out to give you time to fix any red flags. Ideally, inspectors from all these regulatory agencies have been checking in on a regular basis to make sure that what’s being built and installed in your restaurant matches the schematics and specs they approved in the permitting process. “I know of cases where a health inspector has come in for a final inspection and made the operator rip out and replace the kitchen flooring because it didn’t meet code,” Malody says. 

Rule of Thumb 

However long you think part of the process will take, add 30 days, says Karen Malody, FCSI, principal, Culinary Options, Seattle. 

Lesson Learned 

Once the equipment is fired up, have your HVAC and kitchen exhaust contractors come back to balance the system under working conditions. In one case, an operator with a demand ventilation in the kitchen-tested the balance when the kitchen equipment was off. On opening day, with all the cooking equipment fired up and the hood exhaust fan on high, patrons had a hard time opening the front door. 

Hire Staff Early 

Hiring is another key issue that causes delays. In today’s tight labor market, recruiting and retaining skilled employees is difficult. That means you should be prepared to hire and put key personnel—chefs and managers—on payroll before you think you’ll need them to keep them from leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.  

It also means you may end up hiring inexperienced staff for other positions who will need a lot of training to bring up to speed. Again, plan on hiring staff earlier than you thought you’d have to, and budget for additional payroll when you put together your business plan.  

“If you’ve hired good people, have at least a month of payroll to keep them on board,” Malody says. “In addition to training, there’s a ton of stuff they can do, such as unpacking small wares, organizing the storage areas and putting inventory away, setting up service stations, learning the POS system and cleaning—lots of cleaning.” 

“Most operators also underestimate the time involved in putting together and testing production recipes,” Malody continues. That process can be part of staff training, too, so employees see how recipes are put together and the tasks they’ll have to learn, as well as understanding the ingredients that go into them and what they taste like. When the time comes, they can use this information to do a better job of explaining menu items to customers—both for the purpose of marketing the dishes and for informing guests with allergy sensitivities. 

Having your staff help prepare and clean the restaurant in the final stages of preparation while they’re learning their job responsibilities also gives them a sense of ownership and fosters teamwork early on.

If you do decide to bring staff on board a week or two early, don’t forget to adjust your schedule for developing all of your policies and procedures manuals and employee handbooks, as well as training materials. And you should have at least an initial temporary supply of food and beverage menus to work with until all your production recipes are tested and finalized.  

How to Run a Successful Soft Opening 

Training, however effective, isn’t the same experience as actually preparing and serving food to a dining room full of hungry patrons. One way of giving your employees more practice is to schedule a soft opening. 

“Soft openings are like trial runs,” Malody says. “They allow everyone to get a feel for actual operations and what it takes to get food out.” 

You can conduct a soft opening in different ways. Some operators simply open their doors without any announcement, for limited hours and with a limited menu. They charge normal menu prices, but by limiting the time they’re open and the items available they give the staff a chance to ease into a routine of getting food out and offering excellent service before the restaurant gets truly busy. The soft opening also is a good opportunity to observe how well the hosts, servers, bar and kitchen staffs work together, so you can identify inefficiencies and resolve them ahead of the grand opening. 

Another type of soft opening is an invitation-only “friends and family night.” Malody recommends hosting at least two such events for every daypart menu you plan on serving. For the first event, invite anyone involved in the creation and development of the restaurant from construction crews to suppliers, as well as family and friends for a free meal (though typically liquor laws will require you to charge for alcoholic beverages). Give a certain number of invitees a specific window of time to arrive, and schedule the arrivals in shifts versus all at once. That helps ensure a steadier flow of orders that staff can produce and serve.  

The second event can be a general invitation with no set timeframe. That will likely produce a more uneven—and lifelike—ebb and flow of customers, giving staff a real trial by fire. 

Track what items customers order to see which are more popular than others. Track depletion of par levels of inventory of all the menu items that were ordered so you can adjust production recipe quantities later. And track ticket time so you can see where more training or staff support is needed.  

Conduct a staff meeting after every event to learn what went well and what didn’t work, where bottlenecks occurred and what staff did to try to remedy any problems that arose. Assign someone to take detailed notes of staff comments. You also may want to hold these meetings after every shift for the first week after opening and make them weekly thereafter.  

“Based on what you hear, you may even reposition a station based on how food flows in the kitchen,” Malody says.  

Send out customer surveys after the events—online surveys through services like SurveyMonkey work well, but you’ll need to get everyone’s email address. Offer them a discount or some other incentive to fill it out. Design it for focused feedback on: 

  • the taste and quality of the item they ordered 
  • their perceived value of the food and what they would pay for it if they ordered it again 
  • the quality of the service they received 

Ask them to comment on any problems they encountered, how they were resolved and how satisfied they were with the staff’s response to their complaint. Ask also for comments about the ambiance, decor and overall experience. 

Pro Tip: The Customer Isn’t Always Right 

One caveat about what you hear from customers: “Everyone from the guy who did the plumbing to your family will have a comment about how you did things—including how much your mother-in-law hates the color of the paint you chose,” says Steve Starr, president, starrdesign, Charlotte, N.C. “Write them down on a master list, but don’t change anything for six weeks. If you get consensus from many people, or something operational isn’t working quite right, fix it. Other things, like the color of the walls, people will get used to overtime.” 

Read Your Complete Guide to Opening a Restaurant for more of the ins and outs of starting, and maintaining, a successful enterprise.