Meeting Bobbie and Hosting a Great Soft Opening
Not to brag, but I’ve attended my fair share of soft openings at new restaurants, witnessing everything from dazzling to disaster. With franchisors more savvy than ever and more franchisees realizing the importance of opening with a bang (and good media coverage), I’d like to share my thoughts on what makes a good soft opening or media invite in the wake of a fine experience at a new Capriotti’s.
My most memorable soft opening was one I attended many years ago in my home city. A friend’s former boss had partnered with some new investors to renovate and rebrand a large-scale casual restaurant. The invitations were gorgeous and there was a lot of buzz-building emails before the big night. We were excited, hungry and looking sharp when we arrived at the scheduled time—and went home exhausted, annoyed, still hungry and worried about our acquaintance's new venture. It was the roughest of new beginnings.
What went wrong? It might be easier to list what went well, but the long and short of it was a guest list that was far too long and a kitchen that just wasn’t prepared to serve so many meals in a short time frame and with such little experience. Looking around to see sweating servers, anxious hosts and an owner who looked like he just watched his life savings go up in flames were the schadenfreude-filled highlights. Remember, only you can prevent rolling disasters on what’s supposed to be your big, shining debut.
The flip side of the coin was my experience earlier this week at the soft opening of a new Capriotti’s in the swanky Minneapolis suburb of Edina. It’s a city with a reputation of being fancy and demanding, and the owners Jeff Kegel and Gavin Rydell were warm, friendly, well prepared and assisted by support staff from the company's corporate office in Las Vegas.
Walking in the front door in a great, high-demand neighborhood, the kitchen staff greeted me and thanked me right away for coming—and they didn’t appear to be held against their will. The dining room was full, but not to capacity, striking the right balance between testing the team’s abilities and looking full enough for the right vibe. Everyone was greeted, seated, given a drink and told the show would begin in a moment. Good start.
Judging from the conversations and mini photo shoots I witnessed rolling solo at this gig, I discovered the guests were mostly food bloggers, so-called influencers and other scribes like myself. I didn’t recognize anyone, but tables were close enough that conversations blended from table to table as we were all given lively descriptions of each signature sandwich.
Rather than opening up the full menu, the Capriotti’s staff presented display/photo-only sandwiches with full descriptions of what makes them so tasty—ginning up our interest before circulating the room with ample trays of samples, one sandwich at a time.
Between bites, we heard more from Kegel and Rydell, who talked about how their love for the Bobbie (a turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwich that is fabulous) led them to diversify their business portfolio with a restaurant of their own—acknowledging that this was a big, important step for them both. Those personal anecdotes put two human faces on the latest food brand in town, and they handled the whole night with aplomb.
As we were all filling up, and those bloggers did their weird thing with trays of sandwiches and iPhones in the corner, Capriotti’s VP of Operations Vinni Calcagni talked about the brand from the corporate perspective—how the food is made, the brand’s charming backstory and why it was so important to bring in local food personalities for this mini grand opening. The whole event was light, breezy, informative and personable.
Nobody wants a mutiny, be it staff members or invited guests, on their opening event. Go big enough that guests have their attention held throughout, but also without going too ambitious and inviting enough guests to stress out your fledgling staff. Media peeps want to know the high points and make contacts for future follow-ups, while also sampling the menu without being taken through the details of every crouton or peppercorn.
As somebody who is a professional soft opening crasher, there’s no substitute for face time between media and new brands or ownership groups. I now have several new contacts to call when I have a question about any number of subjects, and they have a friend in the industry outside of their newly formed franchise family.