The Answers Issue: What is it with “soft” restaurant openings in D.C.?

What is it with “soft” restaurant openings in D.C.? Almost every new restaurant uses the term, yet they all mean something completely different by it. There’s no regulation, no consistency; it’s like the freaking wild west out there! Why can’t they just open? Hard. And now! Seriously, what’s wrong with not opening until you’re actually fully prepared to?

Depends who you ask. Restaurateurs will tell you it’s all about training. “It’s a soft opening so we can practice,” says D.C. chef Mike Isabella, who’s planning a three-day soft opening for his forthcoming Mexican-themed restaurant Bandelero in Georgetown. With staff between 80 to 100 people, there can be lot of handholding in the beginning.

But the “soft” opening serves another important purpose: to keep the critics out. It’s part of the overall PR scheme. Calling an opening “soft” lowers expectations and blunts early word of mouth. A restaurant that unlocks its doors under a big grand-opening banner with balloons and other fanfare is ripe for whatever commentary comes its way. An eatery that downplays its debut, on the other hand, gets some temporary cover. This is particularly helpful in the first few days when rookie staffers and logistical snafus are bound to muck things up. At a soft opening, the fly in the soup isn’t a serious offense—it’s a kink to be worked out.

Going soft also establishes a support network. Operators invite friends and family, their various suppliers, liquor distributors, investors and other associates, many of whom have a vested interest in the venue’s success. These types of people tend to provide two types of positive feedback: (1) glowing validation and/or (2) helpful suggestions. It’s sort of like a third-grader asking his parents to evaluate his latest magic marker scribbling; even if it sucks, it still winds up displayed prominently on the fridge.

In Isabella’s case, a very limited number of people will be invited to try Bandelero for free early on. The price of giving away the complimentary meals—somewhere in the range of $20,000—is built into the overall budget, part of the cost of doing business. One person you won’t see at those gatherings: Me. “No writers will ever come to my pre-opening,” Isabella says. “No writers, no bloggers.”

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