It happens all the time in the catering industry: we promise the moon to our clients and then hope for the best when it’s time to deliver. So how do we make our clients feel like they got everything they’ve ever wanted and more?
Chef Stewart Lane of Lon Lane's Inspired Occasions
Stewart Lane, executive chef of the Kansas City, Missouri-based Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions, has a few things to say about how to make your clients feel like rockstars. This month, we sat in on his ICA webinar and enjoyed it so much we decided to take some time to give it the shout-out it deserves. Here are some of Lane’s suggestions on how to make your client feel like a rockstar and inevitably come back to you:
Creating the vision
Everyone who works in this business knows how important the dream conversation is and how asking the right questions helps solidify the game plan and make their event become real. This is where you ask about colors, themes, who is attending and what the purpose of the event is.
Asking straightforward questions about logistics is important during that initial conversation, but this is also the part where your client’s imagination should be able to wander a little bit. By asking more open-ended questions, we tap into the dream list, which gets the client excited and shows you care. It is also a good lead into the budget conversation that follows. Here are two questions that encourage openness between you and your client:
• What is the most important factor you want people to remember
• If money wasn’t an object, what would you do?
Creating the vision is where you take what is in your clients’ heads and turn it into reality, Lane explains. It allows you to show off your creativity and really highlight the client.
Mini Heirloom Tomato Crostini with Alderwood Smoke Tomato Aioli and Spicy Microgreens. Photo courtesy Freeland Photo
Intertwining vision and budget
The budget conversation is the most delicate part of the planning process. If we rush through these conversations and push them in unnecessary ways, our client feels less like a rockstar.
Lane encourages fellow catering professionals to use price navigators to sculpt the dream menu while keeping it within the budget. This helps you retain the “integrity and specialness” for your clients. A good way to do this is to build in items that can be substituted or lost without jeopardizing integrity. Start with the high-end menu and work your way back. Here are some ways to scale back:
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• Remove the most expensive item or reformat the dish.
• Simplify the vegetables.
• Reduce the number of desserts.
• Create alcohol pairings with dessert.
• Remove seafood from the buffet and put in a dip.
• Example scenario: A charcuterie has four kinds of cheeses. Scale it back to two different types of cheeses. Instead of homemade preserves and jams, work in grapes.
Chef Stewart at a "Make Your Own Nacho Bar." Photo courtesy Freeland Photo
“It’s important to keep the integrity of menu,” Lane explains. “You can adjust it, but the client hasn’t lost anything. They are still getting that top-tier menu item, but now they’re getting it within their budget.”
Here are some of his other go-to budget tips that will make your client feel valued:
• Start with what could be, then adjust the budget accordingly.
• Get rentals. Or buy your own and then rent from in-house and make it a profit center. Think about the items that you have—burners, cake pedestals and liquid nitrogen. You can work that in as a rental.
• It’s always easier to decrease than it is to increase.
• Plan adequate staff plus 10 percent. Your staff is a profit area, not an expense.
This delicate dance is essential back and forth relationship building. Your clients should feel like they are a part of the creation. It is, after all, their event and their reputation.
“People who go to a bad event don’t remember the caterer specifically,” Lane says. “They remember whose event they were a part of. It is our job to ensure everyone has the best possible experience because it’s our reputation…and theirs.”
A dessert table from Lon Lane's Inspired Occasions. Photo courtesy Freeland Photo
Discovering the “always and nevers”
The always and nevers—every client has them. These are the most important shares from our client, yet they often get overlooked. “If you’re in a Tanqueray household and you bring a Bombay Sapphire, you’re going to have a disappointed client,” Lane says.
Asking leading questions not only gets us to learn our clients’ strong preferences and aversions, but it also shows your attention to detail and unique talents. Here are some always and nevers to consider:
• Which alcohol brands they prefer. This is especially important with scotch, whisky and gin drinkers.
• Food types and styles of service. For example, some people get uncomfortable with too many butlered dishes.
• Types of serviceware. Example: Compostable is a must.
• Foods they absolutely dislike. Not limited to food. This includes lighting, DJs, anything. Ask the question: What do you never want to see at your event?
• Direct them with leading questions. “How do you like your steak cooked?” “Vegetarian is no challenge. What is your favorite type of vegetable?”
In the end, asking leading questions that make your clients feel like they created the meal will give them that much more pride in the event.
To hear this webinar in its entirety, click here! And don’t forget that ICA releases more webinars like this every month. Visit us online to see our recent webinars and be sure to stay tuned for upcoming ones.
Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions is a proud member of the ICA. For more information, visit internationalcaterers.org.