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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Soft Openings

January 13, 2021

In my 40-year restaurant career I have been a part of 22 new-restaurant openings. Three of those were at the beginning of my career and were for other people’s restaurants. The other 19 have been restaurants I currently own or have owned.

Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful endeavors one can experience Though, for someone who is consumed and obsessed with the restaurant business, it’s one of the most thrilling, exhilarating, and fulfilling activities one could imagine. For those of us who thrive on creating restaurant concepts, menus, themes, and décor elements, there’s nothing we’d rather be doing.

There are a lot of moving parts to a restaurant. In the initial days, when all of those parts are trying to come together, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. It has been my experience that, no matter how many years of restaurant work the front and back of the house teams have under their belts, the first few weeks are usually an all-out scramble to get through each shift by doing everyone’s best to get the food prepared and served at the table.

Last week we opened our newest concept, a Tex Mex restaurant called El Rayo. I am either a shrewd businessman, or a complete idiot for opening a new restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic, and at the absolute worst time in the history of the restaurant business to be in the restaurant business. Time will tell.

We opted for a soft opening. A soft opening in the restaurant business is where the owner just opens the doors to the new restaurant without any marketing, advertising, or notice. In all of those 19 openings, I have only had one other soft opening. It was my first, December 27, 1987.

Back then I had no clue what I was doing. We probably had a soft opening because we got so caught up in getting the restaurant ready to open, that we neglected to do any advertising. Although it could have also been the fact that we had absolutely no money to advertise. Either way, in 1987 there were only a couple of other restaurants in my hometown of Hattiesburg and we were slammed from the minute we opened the doors.

Every other restaurant opening I have experienced was marketed and advertised to the maximum extent. They were all busy. Some were handled more successfully than others. It’s been my experience that, no matter how proficient the kitchen crew is, and how well-trained the service staff is, the initial days are rocky. There are several reasons for this. There are so many moving parts and all of those parts are new to everyone involved. In the early days, it always seems as if there’s no way the restaurant is ever going to run smoothly without running people ragged every shift. But— every time— things smooth out, and within weeks, that which seemed impossible days earlier seems easy.

A soft opening goes against every fiber of my being. I am a marketer and promoter at heart. It’s what I have always done in my company. My main roles in the restaurants are to develop the concepts, design the interior dining room spaces, layout the kitchens, create the menus, oversee recipe development, create the overall image and branding, and get the word out. Once a restaurant is open, my roles are reduced to continual menu development and marketing.

With every other opening since the first one, we have tried to think of every creative way imaginable to drive initial business. Until last week.

I didn’t plan on a soft opening this time out, it just happened. Up until the Tuesday we opened, I was ready to pull out all of the stops to spread the word. Instead, I just hung a banner outside the restaurant, and we opened the doors at 5:00 p.m. Business was brisk, but not overwhelming as it usually is on a first night. We had a few trial-runs under our belt in the preceding days, but this was the real deal with paying customers.

The second night saw double the business from the first and still only a few minor hiccups in the service. The same went for the next night. Though Friday night was an entirely different story. We had been seating the dinner shift only. Partially due to the fact that we’re trying to ease into this new concept, and partially because the labor pool during the pandemic is the worst I’ve experienced in my four decades of doing this.

Dinner-only service is a luxury for a kitchen staff. On our fourth night opened— and our first weekend night— a line was out the door before 5:00 p.m. The kitchen was ready, but we dropped the ball in communicating to the host staff that the dining room should be sat in stages. Instead, we filled every available seat in the dining room in a five-minute period. We were on a wait at 5:05 p.m. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows what happened next. All of those orders came back to the kitchen at once, and it was a nightmare that took two hours in which to recover.

The problem with seating a dining room all at once is that almost everyone gets finished with their meal at the same time and the same thing keeps happening for the rest of the night. On top of all of the dining room tickets coming back to the kitchen, we were also taking carry-out orders. It was rough. We handled it as best as we could.

The next night, instead of filling the dining room five minutes into the shift, we staggered the seating, and were full in 40 minutes. Our guests may have had to wait a little longer for a table, but that is so much better than waiting for dinner once seated.

We will continue with dinner only for another week or so, and then we’ll add lunch, and eventually brunch. Carryout will be a measured rollout, too. I like this new method of a slow rollout and may incorporate it into future openings. I hate to think that it took this many years and that many openings to finally unlock the key to a successful restaurant opening, but, as the man said, “It takes what it takes.”

My wife keeps telling me, “You don’t need to keep waking up at 5:00 a.m. and going into the breakfast place if you’re going to be working long nights like this at the new place.”

My reply to her is, “This is what I live for. This is what I love to do. I don’t know how many more restaurant openings I have in me. I am going to milk every minute of this.”


This week’s recipe: Grillades and Grits

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