Ask the Experts: The Soft Launch

Welcome to Just Opened London’s restaurant problem page, where we ask industry experts to answer the questions that are on everyone’s lips. This time, it’s all about the restaurant soft launch.

We asked a restaurateur, a food writer, a PR and an online influencer for their views on this burning issue…

Restaurants increasingly open on ‘soft launch’ offering the customer a percentage off their food bill while they settle in and iron out any problems. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? We asked our panel…

Is the soft launch a good or bad thing for the customer?

The Restaurateur: Elizabeth Haigh, Kaizen House

Soft launches used to be a great platform for restaurants to ease their way into a new business. For the customer, it meant getting a heavily discounted deal on a meal, more of a sample of what’s to come. A soft launch is more importantly meant for the staff of the restaurant – to get the flow of service going and iron out any niggles before ‘properly’ launching.

These days, there are so many restaurants opening each week, the competition and pressure increases to open quickly as possible, and so some customers seem to have the wrong idea about what a soft launch means and expect perfection straight from when the doors open. This means that not only customers but reviewers, bloggers and anyone with social media are quick to criticise publicly rather than be constructive.

In one instance recently, I was sat next to a customer during a soft launch of a very popular restaurant and he complained about the size of a portion of the dish, to the surrounding guests and staff, even though it was 50% discounted. This kind of hard criticism and expectation needed to be met and handled by the new staff, who are already under pressure from a new service and the  disgruntled guest left feeling short-changed (even though it’s the restaurant who was left short-changed – after handling it amazingly by offering him an extra portion free of charge).So are soft launches good or bad for the customer? In my opinion, they are great for the customer to get a good deal on a meal, but becoming increasingly difficult for restaurants to manage and afford in reputation.

The Food Writer: Audrey Gillan

I’m a sucker for a soft opening. It’s an opportunity to stretch your wallet and your palate, having a taste of a new place as it beds in without paying a fortune for it. As a writer with more than a passing interest in food, I can’t always afford to eat out everywhere that I want to so sometimes an initial offer to dine at a new restaurant at a 50% discount is a good temptation. It’s a lottery, though, but at those odds it’s often worth the risk. I think of it a bit like the £5 Monday deal at my local cinema: I’ll happily go and see Star Wars for that kind of money but I’m not paying the tube fare and West End prices to see a movie I’m not that fussed about.

Recently I was a guest of a friend who was invited (complimentary) at the soft opening of Kudu Restaurant in Peckham. It was an odyssey away from my Spitalfields flat because the Ginger Line was down, but it was worth the seemingly endless two-bus journey to catch the excitement of a truly beautiful little restaurant (the decor is quite something) doing some adventurous South African dishes in a spot in the middle of a faceless row of shops on an ordinary London main road.

My big bugbear, though, is when a soft opening means media and influencer opening, rather than the-doors-are-open-to-anyone opening. That’s when my Instagram feed is smashed with one ‘showstopping’ dish from one restaurant and it becomes clear that a whole load of people have been in for a freebie. That’s when it’s hard to filter through the ‘wowsers’, the ‘woos’, and the ‘way heys’ and see beneath the hype. I admit to being a little suggestible and have followed some of these pictures to their ‘birthplace’ only to be disappointed in ‘this baby’. There’s a famous fish I was shocked to discover was tiny and dry. I really have tried to learn my lesson and wait for the reviews of people like Marina O’Loughlin whose taste I trust implicitly, or from word of mouth from pals who know what they’re talking about. And in between I’ll still be a sucker for 50% off.

The PR: Hugh Richard Wright

The answer to this depends very much on what we mean by a ‘soft launch’, as the meaning, perception and expectations of it have shifted significantly in the last few years. The original soft launch was a period of anything from a couple of days to a couple of weeks before a restaurant officially opened to the public, when guests made up of invited friends, family, local residents/ businesses and walk-ins would be offered a significant discount (sometimes as much as 100%) in return for being willing guinea pigs. In this format, soft launches were emphatically a good thing for the customer.

As with so many things, this began to change with social media. People invited to a soft launch might post about it on social media, and naturally this piqued the curiosity of those who weren’t invited but were interested in trying the restaurant in question; the reaction of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know X was open yet’ creating a mix of anticipation and, in some cases, envy.

Soft launches now have become such a grey area that I’m not convinced there is a benefit to the customer. In most cases, it’s come to mean purely a period of heavy discounting for a few days; the customer saves some money, sure, but they’re not getting a preview that isn’t also available to anyone else who books or walks in, and the restaurants aren’t gathering feedback or making tweaks to the product or service – it’s just about bums on seats and social buzz.

Where the restaurant is still tweaking things, often this is poorly communicated – if at all – so actually guests who rush through the doors lured by 50% off but expecting 100% quality leave disappointed. If a restaurant is using a soft launch to improve their offering before officially opening, it can result in dishes that have the sh*t ‘grammed out of them during the soft launch being changed or even removed from the menu entirely if they don’t turn out to taste as good as they look, which of course can be disappointing for customers wanting to try what they’ve seen.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that everyone posting from a free ‘soft launch’ – really, just a pre-opening party – is being nice about somewhere that, objectively, isn’t actually very good, and customers rushing to try the place on the back of this early publicity risk being very disappointed. But that’s arguably not the soft launch’s fault, more a comment on how much as consumers we can, or should, trust social media. Caveat lector…

The Influencer: Kar-Shing Tong

Any time a customer can get access to a good or service at a discount, in my opinion, can only ever be a good thing, and that extends beyond food and drink. However, we do still see instances where people leave a soft launch disappointed because it fails to meet expectations and in this respect, it is bad because the customer has invested both time and money into what really constitutes a leisure activity. But herein lies the problem; expectation.

For me, I view soft launches as one of two things; it’s either promotional or a test.

A promotional soft launch is whereby a restaurant just wants to get as many people in as possible to shout about it and make it look busy. Their processes are already sound and they know they can handle volume so all they want from the customer is publicity. Think Shake Shack when they open new sites. A test soft launch is where a new restaurant wants to run itself to the maximum during service to see how both kitchen and front-of-house respond and more importantly, tease out any issues before they are fully open, fix them and learn from mistakes.

The lack of transparency between the two is what causes an expectation gap and in the process, disgruntled customers. However, this doesn’t have to be the case; restaurants just need to be upfront and manage the customer’s expectations and at the same time, communicate what is expected of the customer. Don’t assume anything; as the age old saying goes, it makes an ass of ‘u’ and ‘me.’

If it is promotional, then say so but if it is a test, then requesting patience, understanding and most importantly, feedback from the customer is key and in my opinion, quite reasonable given that the customer is essentially being remunerated with a discounted meal for being guinea pigs. By doing so, it sets the bar and limits how bad the experience can be.

From a customer’s perspective, partaking in that feedback loop is key and your opinion can help shape the restaurant before it opens to the masses. So, when a waiter/waitress asks you how the mains were, don’t be afraid to say how you feel as opposed to just saying, ‘it’s fine’; a misdemeanour I’m guilty of myself at times.

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