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Stealable idea: The art of a restaurant opening

I’ve been to my fair share of restaurant openings. Most follow a similar format. A group of family and friends (and some lucky members of the press) gather at the restaurant before doors are officially open to the public. The diners are told it’s a test run, so they’re encouraged to offer up critiques as they enjoy their gratis meal.

But here’s the thing—those people already are in your corner. Your relatives and buddies want you to succeed. You don’t need to convince them to come try your restaurant. In fact, they’ll likely be among your most loyal customers (and they’ll probably expect a family discount each time). So shouldn’t part of the focus of an opening be engaging with strangers and getting them in the door to give you honest, unbiased feedback? One chain obviously thinks so.

While walking down Restaurant Row in Chicago (technically called Randolph Street), we noticed signs for a new unit of the Nando’s Peri-Peri chain. While the store was clearly in the end stages of construction, a placard out front invited passers by to come check it out—it wasn’t completely walled off like most yet-to-open restaurants. So we decided to walk up and peer through the window. Spotting us creepily looking around, a general manager beckoned us in. He spoke a bit about the chain, telling us it’d be Nando’s first unit in Chicago, opening around May 20.

He then mentioned that Nando’s is doing a “housewarming” opening to break into the Chicago market. Handing us a detailed card from a basket on the host stand, he explained that the chain is inviting anyone who wants to come check out the chain before the opening to do so for lunch or dinner during the four days before its launch. All they need do is RSVP via an online form (the website for the form was on the card) with their preferred day and time, a pretty cool function of modern technology, if you ask me.

It’s not the typical comped meal that accompanies most openings, though. For that four-day period, Nando’s will run as a pay-what-you-want operation, with 100 percent of the money being donated to After School Matters, a Chicago nonprofit. “We’re known for keeping things spicy, but we also have a heart,” says the card.

Granted, I know what Nando’s is all about. The promised arrival of the South African chicken chain is one I’ve been anxiously awaiting. But most Chicagoans are likely unfamiliar with the brand. What a better way to start forming a relationship with the potential customer base than inviting them in ahead of time for a taste and giving back to a local cause. 

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