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Friends & Family Service Is Now Very Online — for Better or Worse

Once upon a time, a bar or restaurant’s opening weekend was the first opportunity for the public to get a taste of a new spot’s menu and atmosphere. These reservations are obviously still coveted, but click on any buzzy new spot’s tagged photos and you’ll now see posts from guests attending an even more exclusive event: friends and family service, also known as F&F.

These celebratory services, though, are arranged for function more than fun. Those in attendance are most often close loved ones and industry friends who will give owners honest feedback about the food, service, and ambiance of a newborn establishment. It’s a chance for chefs to spot imperfect dishes and 86 them, inexperienced servers to memorize menus and screw up without major consequence, and front-of-house to get a feel for the pace of a typical service.

But what was once a safe space to work out kinks has become fodder for judgment before development is even complete. More and more, the public — and the press who will be praising or passing on the establishment in the near future — are getting to peek inside F&F services thanks to Instagram and TikTok. Supportive F&F guests — some of whom have become influencers themselves thanks to the relative celebrification of the culinary and mixology scenes — post congratulatory snapshots of food and drinks porn to their feeds, which then get shared, re-posted, and written up. Sure, this can bring a new venue the hype it needs to hit the ground running, but it also means less room for error and higher — or even impossible — expectations from guests once those Resy slots go live.

The Judgement-Free Zone

Every restaurant approaches its prep for opening night differently, basing choices on capacity, the available resources for comped or discounted dishes, and perhaps most notably, menu curation. It’s gotten harder to keep these choices behind the scenes — take what happened at Virginia’s, an East Village darling that reopened in March after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus. After hosting three nights of F&F service, bar director Evan Hawkins decided the house Martini’s savory flavor profile was too similar to that of the menu’s allium-tastic Gibson. He and owner Reed Adelman swapped its blue-cheese-stuffed olive and brine for absinthe and subtly sweet toasted almond, and added the softened cocktail for opening night.

The blue cheese olive, though, had already taken on a life of its own. Multiple publications called out the Dirty Martini and its garnish as one of the restaurant’s most exciting offerings alongside info about the new East Village space, and Instagram users caught glimpses of it in Instagram stories from F&F guests (and the restaurant’s obligatory reposts). Opening night came, and even though it wasn’t on the menu, multiple diners attempted to order the Martini anyway. Adelson and Hawkins were stuck in the unique and unwinnable position of having to disappoint customers on opening night — over a cocktail that technically never existed.

“It’s sort of the unspoken understanding that if you’re invited for friends and family, you’re not going to write or post something negative about it.”

“It’s tough because for the most part, a lot of restaurants are gonna make changes in the first couple of weeks,” Adelman says. “You also can’t pick and choose what people or the press picks up on.”

Though press may get a peek at potential offerings from pre-opening sample menus and photography, F&F exists to be a judgment-free zone where nothing is permanent. For this reason, many owners avoid inviting writers or content creators (who aren’t attending in a purely platonic capacity) to F&F services. It’s the house’s time for evaluating the experience.

“It’s sort of the unspoken understanding that if you’re invited for friends and family, you’re not going to write or post something negative about it,” Adelson says. “Like ‘I checked out Virginia’s pre-opening — it was really good, but the service was really slow.’ This isn’t a true representation of what the restaurant intends to be.” And even if a practice service does run smoothly, using it to judge an establishment ignores the fact that many menu items will evolve or disappear altogether.

“People rush to define restaurants, and it’s a very silly thing to do,” says Ed Szymanski, co-owner of British seafood spot Dame and its meat-slinging brother bistro Lord’s in New York City. “You wouldn’t [look] at a 3-month-old or a 6-month-old and decide what they’re going to be. There are traits you’ll see in the first few months that are going to develop.”

 

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Clout Chasing at F&F

Now that #FoodTok, Instagram, and digital food publications offer more access to news of openings and new projects coming from beloved hospitality teams in readers’ respective cities, it’s also fostered an increased awareness of the tradition of practice services. And despite their rocky and inconsistent nature — which is the very point of their existence — there’s a sense of exclusivity around F&F that was previously reserved for opening night.

Both Szymanski and Sean Macdonald, owner and chef of Los Angeles tapas spot Bar Monette, say they’ve been approached by influencers and hopeful diners asking to attend their respective restaurants’ recent F&Fs.

“There wasn’t going to be any time for trial and error, so I structured my friends and family a little bit differently so my staff would know what it felt like to get absolutely rocked.”

“I have had people message and be like, ‘Hey, we’d love to come’ and I’ll just reply and say that it’s more of a friends and family kind of thing, but we can always get them a reservation later at a later date,” MacDonald says. “We want more familiar faces for that — we want it to be special, and have everyone know each other.” And while most of these requests are likely in good faith, there’s bound to be clout-seekers who see an invitation to a hyped-up bar or restaurant’s first time at bat as a status symbol.

“Those people are not your real friends, so we don’t invite ’em,” Szymanski says.

The instant buzz around Bar Monette — and some delays due to Los Angeles’s stiff public health regulations — actually drove MacDonald to change his entire F&F format to a tiered, six-day process.

“There wasn’t going to be any time for trial and error, so I structured my friends and family a little bit differently,” he says. After multiple rounds of in-house practice runs with half the staff serving the other dinner and then switching places, they invited their closest family for what was essentially a faux bloodbath “so my staff would know what it felt like to get absolutely rocked,” MacDonald explains. Three nights of a more traditional F&F followed, with the team’s friends getting to experience the smoothest nights of the process.

Behind the Vibe

Now that Instagram is an omniscient guest at practice services, owners are using its looming presence, along with their very online patrons, to better curate their bars’ and restaurants’ identities. More than ever, F&F can function as a vibe check. Hayley Feldman, co-owner of Venice Beach bistro CouCou, considered this when curating the comment cards that F&F guests were asked to fill out at the end of the night.

“I do think it’s generally hard to have a meal at a restaurant and not come away with an impression — positive or negative.” 

“I created a comment card with really specific questions,” she says. “Things like: ‘What do you think of when you hear the name CouCou?’ ‘What are some of your favorite food-related Instagram accounts that you follow?’ ‘What kind of music do you like to listen to?’ Questions beyond asking if you liked the food and drink and more about the experience and taking the pulse on what the vibe should be.”

MacDonald used Bar Monette’s last three F&F services both to hone in on the dining room’s atmosphere and bank content for the restaurant’s Instagram account. “I hired a photographer to take photos to show what the vibe would look like and what would be expected,” he says, adding that using the team’s loved ones as talent also became a way to deviate from more typical behind-the-scenes posts.

 

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For better or for worse, guests will have takeaways from F&F regardless of expectation. But in the age of Instagram, those hip to these services — and on the hunt for the next hip reservation in town — can form preemptive opinions based on voyeuristic peeks behind the curtain, and into a practice that was conceived to be a very offline affair.

“I do think it’s generally hard to have a meal at a restaurant and not come away with an impression — positive or negative,” Szymanski says. “Even knowing all the caveats of friends and family [night], if your pie was burnt or your server dropped a glass of wine in your lap, you’re less [likely to] come back than you would be at a place where you hadn’t been at all.”

Ultimately, these experiences — good and bad — are seeping more and more into the ether, whether via social media or good old fashioned word of mouth. All of which flies in the face of the first rule of practice services: What happens at F&F is, at its core, meant to stay at F&F.

The article Friends & Family Service Is Now Very Online — for Better or Worse appeared first on VinePair.

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