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Soft Openings Are Out of Control

"Open" or "soft open"?
"Open" or "soft open"?
dlofink/Flickr

Once upon a time in a land without Yelp and Twitter, restaurants fell into one of two categories: open or closed. But these days, the situation has become decidedly less black and white. In recent months, I've dined at a number of Valley restaurants that have decided to open their doors for business -- but on special terms. They say they're "soft open," a phrase that used to refer to a business opening quietly to do test runs before an official grand opening date.

In theory, it's a great idea, for both the business owner and the customer. But lately things have gotten out of hand and the soft opening offenses I've seen run the gamut from slightly annoying to "Seriously? WTF."

See also: Is Yelp Fair to Restaurants?

I dropped in for lunch recently at a local restaurant. The spot had been in business for about two weeks. I was disappointed to learn I'd made a long drive only to be presented with a limited "soft opening menu" -- at least they were actually able to serve everything listed.

But at one Scottsdale restaurant, which hosted a well-publicized/advertised grand opening event, I stopped in for a drink only to be told that some of the bar equipment still hadn't arrived. (It's important to note this restaurant's main draw is definitely not the food, but the drinks.) Because of the nonexistent equipment, a good number of the drinks on the menu weren't available at all.

Oh, and to top it off, the space was still under construction. So I "enjoyed" my drink with a nice view of construction workers, garbage cans, and dirt on the soon-to-be-completed back patio. Needless to say, it wasn't a great first impression. Not even close.

See also: Has Service in Restaurants Become Too Casual?

I understand that new businesses want -- and frankly, need -- time to open the doors and do a few test runs before putting themselves out there for the onslaught of social media critics waiting to slam or praise them. And to be absolutely clear, it's not the idea of a soft opening that I hate. But when the technicality of a phrase becomes a crutch for new restaurant owners and chefs, a sorry excuse for not being prepared, it's frustrating.

Paying customers shouldn't be used as guinea pigs. That means for your new POS system, your first-time servers, or those menu items you think will work but still aren't quite sure about. If they're paying full price for a meal, customers should be able to expect a full dining experience. And not just any experience, but the one promised on that restaurant's marketing materials, Facebook, Twitter, and website.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice if everyone out there on the Internet cut brand-new restaurants some slack? Yes, yes it would. (And it's why at New Times/Chow Bella write First Taste columns that are different in tone than our full-blown restaurant reviews.) But if there's one thing I've learned since becoming a journalist, it's that there's always going to be some who just doesn't like your stuff.

And calling your opening a "soft opening" isn't going to change that.

So call it what you want, but a "soft opening" is still an opening. And using it as an excuse for subpar service and food -- especially for weeks on end -- is not only bullshit, it's bad business.

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