When opening a new restaurant, generating buzz is key and simply unlocking the doors and slapping an “Open” sign on the window isn’t going to do that.
Instead, embrace the excitement inherent in opening a new restaurant with a strategic launch plan that includes community connection, a smart web presence, plus soft openings and press previews prior to your grand opening. If you do, by the time you open your doors to the public, you’ll have created quite a stir, and your restaurant will be "The Hot Place" to see and be seen.
Connect with the Community
Lay the groundwork well in advance of opening day by spending time (while you’re waiting on those permits to come through) making connections in the local community. Identify key players in the restaurant industry, local and regional tourism offices, and the neighborhood where you’re located (neighborhood associations can be useful for this).
Introduce yourself to executives of nonprofit groups and members of your city council, take note of local tastemakers, and make time to engage in networking opportunities that may exist through industry-specific groups and the Chamber of Commerce. As you meet people and introduce your concept to the community, keep a record of the people you’ve spoken with, making note of their contact information, so that you can reach out to invite them to your opening activities.
Prior to opening your doors to the public, establish a web presence by creating an informative, engaging website and intriguing content on social media to give the community an idea of what your establishment is all about. Include a sign-up for your email newsletter, offering a first look and special access to your restaurant.
Highlight menu items, ingredients and purveyors you’ll use, as well as the people you hire to help paint the picture of what makes your spot special. Show the behind-the-scenes progress, everything from build-out to choosing design elements to staff training events and tastings. Guests love getting a look at what’s going on behind the curtain, and it can create a sense of anticipation for would-be customers who can’t wait for your opening day. Create an accurate geotag in Facebook (which will then link to Instagram) so that guests can tag your location properly on their first visit. Claim your business pages on online review sites and make sure all of the information regarding your location, hours, menu, and accessibility is accurate.
The soft opening is an opportunity for you to work out the kinks. It’s not your coming out party. This should be a low-impact, private, friends-and-family activity that allows you to test systems and service beyond the watchful eye of Instagrammers and online reviewers. Personally invite friends and family that you trust, and encourage your staff to do the same. Make it clear in the invitation that you are trading a free meal for their patience and, ideally, feedback. During the soft opening, visit every guest and ask for their opinions; but also provide anonymous comment cards for people to leave behind. You may get more honest responses if your friends and family aren’t worried about hurting your feelings.
Consider offering multiple soft opening nights to give all of your staff an opportunity to not only practice their skills but also to sit down and experience a meal themselves so that they can see what works well and what needs more attention. Debrief front- and back-of-house staff at the end of each soft opening service with your notes, which should be both positive and constructive.
Media is hungry for the next scoop, and they want access to your restaurant before the general public so they can write about it. Create a press release that includes relevant opening information, including your grand opening announcement.
Include an invitation to a private media preview in your press release. This should take place prior to your grand opening, with enough lead time to allow them to turn a story around that will generate some buzz for you. Typically, no less than a week should be sufficient, though if you are working with journalists who are print-only, you may need to provide them more information in advance if you’re hoping to get coverage before your doors open.
During the press preview, you set the menu: Put your best foot forward by serving menu items that show off skill, technique, great ingredients, and the vibe of your restaurant. Make sure your kitchen staff is set up to prepare any menu items that are listed, and if there are special requests, oblige them graciously.
As the event happens, introduce your chef, sommelier, bar manager and other key players, and allow them to show a bit of their expertise. Also, lead a group tour through the building, including the kitchen, pointing out details that you don’t want them to miss. Send journalists home happy and full, with printed talking points, sample menus, and any marketing swag you might have.
It’s finally time to open your doors in a big way, a grand way, to everyone under the sun. Send personal invitations to all of the people who have been a part of your opening experience, from the architect and general contractor to the designer of your website.
Now is the time to invite everyone who follows you on social media and subscribes to your newsletter. They’ve been waiting for this moment! Just make sure your reservation system is bulletproof and that your staff is prepared for some serious crowds. Be sure to invite the farmers, cheesemakers, winemakers, brewers, distillers, and other purveyors whose products are featured on your menu. You may even want to call special attention to them during the grand opening celebrations, perhaps through special menu recognition or table signage.
In the grand opening invitation, be clear about what you will provide for free—perhaps an appetizer or passed hors d'oeuvres—and what will be charged. There are so many different ways to approach these incentives, and it can be confusing for guests who aren’t sure what to expect. Setting the expectations in advance will help your guests avoid feeling sticker shock or making dining choices based on incorrect assumptions. Work the floor, shake hands, and thank every guest you can for coming. Make these early guests feel special, and they’ll remember it for a very long time. Hire a photographer to capture this big day, and share photos on social media, encouraging guests to tag themselves in the pictures. (Everyone who does is doing a little bit of advertising for you.)
Send guests home with a special, limited-time return offer to entice them to bring new guests on their next visit. You may also want to solicit feedback from your grand opening guests as well. After all, you’re still working out the kinks, even at this stage. A great way to do that is to create an online comment form that allows you to capture emails. Just make sure you get permission to add those emails to your newsletter list. Use your online invite platform, newsletter, and social media to follow up with grand opening guests to thank them for coming and to invite them to return.
One Year Later…
Congratulations! You’ve made it through what may be the hardest year in business. Celebrate your success with an anniversary party. This can be a weekend-long celebration with special offers. Consider highlighting collaborations with breweries or other partners. This is also a great time to thank the community by giving back to a local nonprofit.
Send a press release to let media know about your milestone and to invite them to the anniversary celebration. Make an event page on Facebook, and invite all of your followers to attend. Create an Instagram hashtag recognizing your accomplishment, and use it leading up to the events, sharing noteworthy moments from your first year in business. Encourage guests to use the hashtag by creating an online competition for a gift certificate. Make it something that’s worth their while, and you’ll get better results. Remember to publicly thank your staff and the friends, family, and community who have supported you along the way!