It always used to be that, as a restaurant, you were open, or you weren’t. Sure — before welcoming in the general public, owners might hold a couple of secretive friends and family dinners, but these were freebies handed out to trusted loved ones on the clear understanding that they were there as willing guinea pigs. Mistakes would be made, systems would fail, dishes would be made incorrectly and / or forgotten entirely, glasses — smash! — would be dropped as servers got used to unfamiliar trolleys and trays. All things which would then be corrected by the time the place opened proper and started charging real people real money.
At some point, the guest lists lengthened to include the burgeoning subclass of influencers. And practically overnight, social media — and the broadcastable bragging rights they enabled — basically invented the soft opening; word got out that even before the doors officially opened on the first day for the first service, there was a way to eat in new restaurants before everyone else.
Scarcity bred demand, and some new operations started advertising their soft openings — as a means of grubbing up a few extra quid before going fully live, as a way of getting people to sign up to their databases, as a means of creating some early online buzz around the business. In this format, the newly-public soft launch was a win-win; it had become as much PR exercise as privilege.
It also created a bizarre arms race among the people — those bloggers again, but also actual restaurant critics — whose (digital) publications demanded the freshest, hottest take on a new place. The nebulous window before “full” opening ceased to act as a grace period and become more of an advance screening; conscious that they were likely to be reviewed — or even just dropped in on — by a big name in their first few weeks, operators often went the extra mile to ensure they were possibly a little better-prepared than their highly discounted prices suggested.
This created a fairly toxic set of expectations and misconceptions which restaurants under soft opening these days have to manage; when they fail to do so, it has never been easier for a dissenting voice to make itself heard. A few months ago, famously coke-averse chef Neil Rankin took the express train to Temper City when Ben Southwood of Straight Up London reviewed his new joint on the basis of a soft lunch; more recently, chef Stevie Parle took to Twitter to bemoan some extraordinarily entitled responses to less-than-perfect experiences at newly (softly) opened Pastaio:
There’s something some people clearly don’t understand about soft launches. It’s this. They’re soft launches. We’re not 100% yet, sorry.— Stevie Parle (@StevieParle) November 2, 2017
Parle himself appreciates this is an issue that affects both sides of the pass, telling Eater London:
We definitely need something — be it soft openings or friends and family nights — to get up to scratch and kick the tyres, but recently, with soft openings, we haven’t done well at communicating what they’re about. In a way it’s our fault as an industry for turning it into a promotional tool, but it sometimes feels like everyone’s now a critic. Customers need to be patient, too.
The gap between useful exercise, final tyre-kick and promotional tool has grown ever-wider in recent years; as it continues to spread further, incidents like these will become more likely. It is important that restaurateurs make it explicitly clear quite what the discount does and doesn’t buy, but even if they do so, it’s only human nature, once a customer has been charged any amount of money, for them to question whether it was worth it. If they feel hard done-by, it might be bad form to jump straight to social media and say so, but it’s a bit of a double standard for operators to take umbrage at that if they are also happy for visitors to their soft launches to praise an imperfect, discounted experience that may bear little resemblance to the full-price version.
As with so much of the restaurant scene in 2017, these waters are a lot murkier than they used to be. The old friends-and-family model worked well enough in terms of running final checks before opening doors to normal punters; given that the practice is much less prevalent in the US than it is over here, it’s clear that the industry doesn’t need soft launches at all. But from the outside it looks like it has grown accustomed to them: to the cheap buzz they bring, regardless of the bad behaviour they sometimes provoke.
And there’s another word for that, of course: it’s an addiction.
Special thanks to Hugh Wright for his thoughts and contributions to this piece.