Say the word “tasting” to some caterers, and they will visibly cringe. Mention the same thing to other caterers, and you see their faces light up with enthusiasm. Why the difference? For some, tastings, samplings, or chef’s tables as they are variously referred to, are viewed as expensive, time consuming, and resource-sapping; for others, they are an extremely valuable sales tool that can help you close an event on the spot. While most caterers end up executing them in some format, they can be extremely different when it regarding formats, guidelines—and most of all results.
A good starting question to help you evaluate your tasting process would be, “Does the client have to be booked before we hold a tasting for them?” Certainly, holding tastings exclusively for confirmed clients means that you are not spending time and resources on a potentially lost sale, and you have an opportunity to recoup the costs. The flip side to this is that clients trying to make a decision between you and a competitor might be swayed if the competitor does offer tastings while you don’t offer tastings before booking. A potential solution is obviously to charge a fee for the tasting, possibly one that is then credited toward their balance if they do book.
Either way, you should only offer tastings to qualified clients that have at least a rough menu in place, to ensure you have a direction to proceed at the tasting. Not having client input prior to writing a tasting menu may easily result in a request for a second tasting if you didn’t include what they were looking for.
“Remember, unless it’s a specifically requested menu item or something requiring ethnic authentication, you don’t need to show a client everything.”
Butternut bisque shooters from Chowgirls Killer Catering, Minneapolis, MN
Formats and guidelines are a must so that your entire sales and operations teams are being consistent. Setting the number of guests allowed per tasting, establishing certain time slots and days that don’t impede production or other sales, and limiting the amount of food prepared are all very important. Remember, unless it’s a specifically requested menu item or something requiring ethnic authentication, you don’t need to show a client everything. Tastings are a great way to establish trust with your client, and put them at ease in terms of quality; if they are not comfortable with your guidelines and don’t trust your quality, they are not your client.
Another key format question to consider is the use of group tastings, which seem more prevalent now. Several couples are invited to one “event” where the caterer selects the menu and service style. Some benefits of this format:
• You can showcase one of your venues (which also helps build that venue relationship), and also some of the business partners you work with.
• Business partners will often be willing to donate or exchange products and services for an opportunity to be in front of a captive (and receptive) audience.
• Your production and culinary team can focus on one event, rather than what might be several.
• The invitees often end up striking up conversations and sharing tips about their upcoming wedding or event.
On the potentially negative side:
• You might not get that one-on-one interaction your clients expect. If you’re trying to work a room, your attention will be divided.
• You run the risk of not serving menu items your guests are interested in.
• Meshing a variety of schedules can be a challenge, even with an extended serving window.
Tastings can be an extremely beneficial sales tool when utilized correctly. If they are approached as a nuisance, you risk the opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot and lose a sale. Find what works best for you and your team—and more importantly your clients!
To learn more, consider coming to the NACE Experience this summer in Houston. Doug Quattrini, CPCE, Feastivities Events, is a board member for NACE (National Association for Catering and Events).