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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Restaurants have fallen hard for soft openings

“Soft opening. Grand opening. When they opened The Flamingo, one day it was closed, the next it was open. End of story. I know, I was there.”

— Saul Bloom, “Oceans Thirteen”

Curtis Beebe held a preview two weeks ago for his new Local Public House & Provisions restaurant and pub a block away from the towering white water tank in San Antonio.

It was more of an easygoing, nibble-and-sip get-together than a full-blown restaurant coming-out extravaganza. This was in San Ann, after all.

The 70 most-frequent guests of his Pearl in the Grove restaurant in Dade City got an invite to enjoy local beers, kegged wine, root beer on tap and bites of pulled pork sliders, shrimp remoulade, house-made charcuterie and dark chocolate sea salt brownies.

Beebe walked around in an untucked blue dress shirt and comfortable jeans while clutching a glass of wine and delivering handshakes to friends he had invited. He had the calm, satisfied demeanor of a dad whose kid just graduated from college with a job already in hand, not that of a restaurant owner who has a million loose ends to tie up before opening for real on the Fourth of July.

“I just was getting impatient to open, so I thought I’d invite some friends over,” Beebe said.

He spent the night regaling guests with tales of the building’s history, and how someone once rode a horse through the bar when it was a backwoods honky-tonk.

That long capital L of a bar? It was made with reclaimed cypress planks from submerged trees owned by a local guy who specializes in such things. That back area there next to the couch? That will be a little store. If you liked the wine and cheeses, you can go back there and buy some to take home.

Beebe’s casual, no-big-whoop get-together ran opposite to the current dictates of the Big Fat American Restaurant Manual, which insists that all food businesses must hold a “soft opening” to build word-of-mouth buzz online in advance of the grand opening.

There’s nothing soft about soft openings.

Hashtags are dictated. Facebook pages are liked. Tweeting and Instagramming and Foursquaring and Foodspotting and Yelping are encouraged. Food is no longer food. It is a marketing commodity. Dishes aren’t made, they’re published.

The soft opening first started as a way for owners to train their shiny new staff. The manner in which food moves from a restaurant’s cooler to the kitchen line to the servers to the customer and back again is a ballet of a million moving parts. Almost always, those parts have never before worked together at one time. Expecting them to flow flawlessly in unison right out of the box is not only unreasonable, it’s unwise.

Major League Baseball learned this years ago. It calls its soft opening “spring training.” The NFL, NBA and NHL eventually caught on to do their own preseasons. Soft openings in the restaurant business make sense. No one wants to pull a culinary hamstring.

The problem is that the soft opening has become just another grand opening with excuses while expecting visitors to lavish praise. Run out of a menu item? Took an hour to get your meal? Your entree was cold? No biggie. It’s the soft opening, after all.

Beebe’s preview party for Local was very much a reflection of the man, whose handlebar mustache and loose, wavy hair says a lot about his roll-with-it style. A few days before the preview party, the local gas company had yet to run a line to the restaurant. Then Beebe found out he would have to tent the building in late June for termites in the century-old former grocery. Nothing has gone according to schedule. New restaurants can be like that.

Doing it right the first time is crucial, he said. Customers today don’t give second chances. The Yelper giveth and the Yelper taketh away, too.

All it takes in the lightning-quick, knee-jerk social media world is for someone to visit a cool, new place, hit a pothole of a server who takes too long to bring lunch to the table and then spread their displeasure online like a weed you can never quite kill. There isn’t a business bandage big enough for that kind of owie.

“We want to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” he said. “As soon as we get back, we’ll clean up, move the food back in and then train the staff. When they’re ready, we’ll turn on the ‘Open’ sign.”

Not the “Soft Open” sign. The one that says, “Open.”

End of story. I know, I was there.

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