How to open a new venue without your brain exploding

A guide for owners, managers and chefs.

If you are opening a new venue, the single most important thing you need to understand is that it’s gonna be hard. Like really hard. The word ‘challenging’ doesn’t even come close.

VPTD has assisted in the opening of over seventeen venues. The good news is that it does get easier. After about the twelfth opening. Actually no, in all seriousness, every opening gets a little bit easier as you put processes in place that will ensure previous pitfalls are avoided, landmines are dodged, and emergency plan B’s are communicated and put in place.

If you haven’t opened a venue before, or even if it’s been a long time between openings, I guarantee you will underestimate just how all-encompassingly difficult it will be for you and for your team. There is immense pressure on the owners, Managers, Head Chefs and the staff. Think about it for a minute. It’s like a football finals game where everything is at stake, but the team has never played together before and they are playing on an unfamiliar field in foreign territory. Now times that by 100.

There are different strains and stresses for each and every person on the team and each person is convinced their particular challenge is the most momentous.

Here are our top tips for opening a venue.

Do them.

Do them all.

1. Recruit more than you need.

Recruit more than you need. If you need four floor supervisors, recruit five. Need five bar tenders? Open with seven. Need three chef de parties? Make sure you have four by the time the doors open.

Some staff will pull out the week before, some won’t turn up for their shift on the day, and some simply won’t cut it.

In the opening weeks, especially on the floor, it will take one and a half staff members to do the job of one staff member. Once the team is established and routine is in place, one staff member may be able to do the job of two wait staff. Because good wait staff are awesome and that’s how they roll.

If you want your staff to smile at guests when the doors finally open and people start streaming in, don’t put them under unnecessary pressure by understaffing shifts. In four weeks’ time when they can glide around the floor, confident in the new space with the new team and a new menu, then a little additional pressure will be handled in their stride. But not now… Not in the crucial Honeymoon Period.

While the Sous Chefs at Eleven Madison Park suggest over staffing by 40% when launching a new venue, that exact figure might not be feasible for everyone, but the premise is spot on. Recruit more than you need.

Draw up an Organisation Structure and include a space for each role you need to fill. As each recruit is engaged, pop their name into the space. This is a visual reminder to everyone involved of how equipped you are to open. If the venue manager can see that the kitchen has only half a team, they know to offer help well before showtime. Likewise, if the owner sees that the front of house team is missing key roles, they can take action before it becomes too late and service suffers or the manager crumbles into a blithering mess.

2. Make it easy to be great.

Keep things as simple as possible for your opening.

The menu you have when you open needs to be fantastic. Not huge, not complicated, just bloody fantastic. You can always add items to your menu after your team has settled into their space and any wrinkles have been ironed out. Remember, however hard you think it will be, times it by 10. So, keep it simple and make it easy to be great. Help your team to be great. Help your venue to succeed. It is far better to limit bookings or walk-ins for the first few days than to have unhappy guests leave having experienced excessive wait times and harried service.

Remember every single thing is new to every single staff member in a new venue. Keep things as simple as possible for the first few days. This leads to our next tip…

3. Don’t open for the first time on a Friday or a Saturday night.

When you first open your doors (even to family and friends) do it on Tuesday or Wednesday. Give your staff the time to find their flow. By Friday they will be ready to crush it.

Throwing the doors open on a Friday or Saturday is setting your team up to fail. Sure it’s great to be busy but remember everything is new to every single staff member. Every simple action will take twice as long as it will once everyone is familiar with the environment, the systems and each other. Using the POS takes longer, the menu items are all new to the kitchen team, the table numbers are new. And not new to just one team member but new to ALL of them!

Manage the door, stagger bookings. Don’t invite large groups of friends or family to dine all at the same time on the first night. It will be embarrassing for everyone concerned. Small groups. Staggered. Say it with me now… small groups, staggered.

4. Invest in the staff, not just the fit out.

If you are going to invest all that money creating a beautiful venue you simply must ensure the staff are well chosen, well informed, engaged and ready to give your guests some lovin’. If people experience poor service, they aren’t going to come back even if there are gold plated pineapples lining the ceiling.

So firstly – recruit the right people. If your managers are not experienced recruiters don’t for the love of God leave the recruiting of your entire team in their hands only to find on the day of opening you have a motley crew of raw, untried and untested staff assembled for pre-service briefing. Recruiting is a full-time job prior to opening and should begin six weeks out from the opening date. To find the best candidates, reference check and conduct induction and orientation takes time. A lot of time. Time that the manager could and should be spending on things like ensuring the POS is set up to be as fast and efficient as possible, ensuring the menu glossary is ready for staff, ensuring the music system is not too loud, that the playlists project the right vibe, that the martini glasses arrive on time and that everything is put away in the best most appropriate place. Just to mention a few of the one zillion things they should be doing.

Outsource your recruiting to experts. Yes, VPTD offers Venue Opening Recruiting Packages and yes, we are exceptionally good at it. But that’s not the point. The point is even if it’s not us, please get experts to do it. Your whole business is dependent upon the right team. If your manager recruits your whole team and your manager doesn’t work out… chances are your team will have some serious holes in it.

Secondly, invest in the training of your team. Allow for 3 to 5 days of group training for your front of house team. This will not only ensure they are informed but it will fast track the team bonding process. Bar and floor staff need to be crystal clear on the vision of the venue, sequence of service (including hosting), menu items (food, wine and cocktails), how to handle guest complaints and their role within the organisation.

Your kitchen team need ample time to receive and pack away dry stores and perishable items and enough time to prep for the first service. Don’t underestimate this. Prepping for a Saturday night service in an existing venue is a completely different ball game to prepping in a brand-new kitchen.

5. Work to a timeline.

Consider all the things that need to be done prior to opening and map them into a calendar that your management and opening team all work from. Allocate various tasks and have deadlines and completion dates for each task. VPTD have an Opening Calendar in Excel that we use, and we’d be happy to share it with you. Email us at mail@VPTD.com.au. It’s the little things you will overlook if they aren’t on a calendar: aprons, bill folders, drink trays, take away cutlery, docket spikes. Training will be missed if you don’t schedule it. Deadlines for having your team finalised will pass by if you aren’t focussed. Work to a timeline. It will help.

6. Ensure you have a clear organisational structure.

Your team need to know who they report to, and who oversees what. If there is no clear organisational structure everyone will seek answers for every single little thing from the one person who they believe is in charge. That may be the owner or the manager or the head chef putting unnecessary pressure on the people in those roles. If staff know there is an Assistant Manager, or Supervisors, or a Sous Chef, they have various people to see when they have queries, concerns or when minor decisions need to be made.

I’ve counted, and there are over fourteen billion questions that get asked when opening a new venue. (To tell the truth I lost count after the first billion, but there are a lot!) A clear and well communicated hierarchy ensures that questions are dispersed throughout the management team rather than landing squarely on the shoulders of one or two people. You’ve heard of decision fatigue? It’s a thing. Google it. If you want to maintain your sanity, preserve your decision making for the important things and let your junior management team handle the “where can I find paper towel” and “what’s guacamole” questions. Your brain will thank you. You’re welcome.

7. Maximise the Honeymoon Period.

If your marketing has been on point, the minute you open there ensues a distinct Honeymoon Period. Everyone will want to visit, you will be reviewed by bloggers and food journalists, everyone will be talking about your new venue.

This is a good thing but only if you are ready. If your venue is understaffed, your team ill-informed, and your kitchen unable to cope remember…everyone will be talking about your venue. People are not forgiving. They may not complain but they won’t come back and you can guarantee they are telling everyone. The Honeymoon Period is a great marketing tool. Be ready. Impress the pants off your guests. You will only do that by ensuring you follow tips 1 to 6 above.

It’ll be tough, but it’ll be damn rewarding.

Remember to eat.

And ensure your leaders are supported.

There is whole lot riding on their success.

Good luck. May the force be with you.