Ten Tips to a Successful Restaurant Opening in NYC – And How to Avoid Common Pitfalls
Opening a restaurant is an amazing experience that can also be very stressful and not without potential pitfalls. Our experience handling NYC restaurant openings at every stage, from concept and menu development to planning opening events and crafting publicity campaigns, means we have the knowledge and resources to advise you throughout the process.
Here are some tips to help you launch your restaurant and avoid common mistakes made during the pre-opening and opening phase.
1. Be prepared for delays and make sure you have the capital to withstand them. All too often, DOB or Con Edison or the SLA will cause opening delays. Be ready for this. Did the space have gas before? If not, Con Ed has to dig up the sidewalk and/or street to connect you. This takes lots of time. Need a TCO? Make sure your landlord has no outstanding violations with the city. And make sure you have a great expediter.
2. Liquor licensing. Do not sign a lease until you know you can get a liquor license. This is critical. Find a good lawyer – here is one we recommend wholeheartedly Elke Hofmann Law – and make sure you can get the type of license you need. Community Boards are tough and neighbors need to be cultivated. Don’t expect a cakewalk, especially if you are opening in an area already saturated with bars and restaurants.
3. Budget for PR. PR is the most effective, fastest way to get the word out and drive customers through the door. Since you are spending a lot to open the restaurant, make sure you protect your investment and fill seats right away. You should secure a PR company at least 1 – 2 months prior to opening to maximize press coverage. Hiring PR two months after the opening because you are slow is not going to be as effective and you will miss out on opening media buzz.
4. Training. Friends and Family preview nights have an important function. The goal is to have your staff become familiar with the menu and your POS system. Yes, you will give away free food, but you will also get invaluable feedback. This is when the kitchen should evaluate the menu and cut dishes that aren’t strong. And if you find your staff is not ready? Spend a day or two on extra training. You only have one opportunity to make a first impression once you open the door to paying customers.
5. The opening. Alas, there are no “soft openings” in New York. If you are open and charging money, then you are subject to reviews and Yelp ratings. With social media and blogs, the days of quietly opening under the radar are over. Increasingly writers and critics want to write about a place in the first few days. This means you are under immediate scrutiny and subject to reviews the night you open!
6. Reservations. Whether you take reservations for all diners or just large parties, there are more options than ever. The widely used Open Table charges you $1 per diner on top of a monthly fee. Newcomers like Resy charge a flat $99 per month with no per cover cost and have increasingly become the choice for NYC’s buzziest restaurants. Consider your options before signing on the dotted line.
7. Watch your labor costs. Everything will be more expensive than you budgeted. It’s easy in the run-up to your opening to have a full staff working long hours, even easier to do so when you are packed at opening. It’s fine to limit opening hours so you can control labor and work out the kinks. Running a restaurant is the same as running a marathon so make sure you are built to last. Owners often rush things like brunch right away but it’s better to launch it a month later and give your PR team a new reason to reach out to writers on your behalf.
8. Be ready for slower periods – business at most restaurants slows down in January and August and bad weather can strike at any time. Six months working capital is recommended but at least three months should be in the bank when you open. Ensure you have money on hand to cover your expenses.
9. Comps are a fact of life in the restaurant business but they need to be carefully managed. Staff and management should be empowered to use things like free tastes and extra desserts to build repeat customers, not treat their friends. Host journalists – but the right ones. It’s the job of your PR company to tell you who is worth it and protect you from freebie seekers.
10. It’s the hospitality business. Greet your guests, touch every table, ask them how they heard about you and their experience at your restaurant. In a city that is increasingly corporatized, the human touch has gotten lost and can give you a competitive edge. People want to meet chefs and restaurateurs. Share your passion!