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Tasting Notes: Expert Tips for Curating the Perfect Tasting Experience

In the dynamic landscape of the catering industry, creating memorable experiences is paramount in every situation. One exceptional way to captivate your clients’ attention and taste buds from the very beginning is by curating a thoughtfully crafted tasting experience.

From engaging the senses to showcasing your culinary expertise, a well-executed tasting experience can set the stage for successful partnerships and unforgettable events.

“Tastings are a great way to showcase what we can do and to let the client experience their event without all the distractions that can occur at the actual event,” says Karen O’Connor (Daniel et Daniel Catering & Events). “It instills confidence in our clients that we will facilitate their having an amazing event.”

The JDK Group’s culinary team plates up during a group tasting event. Photo courtesy Philter Photography

While tastings can be one of the most effective ways to showcase what you have to offer, they also serve as an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the competition and help customers better understand your company while they’re shopping around.

However, hosting a tasting experience is a lot more than bringing out a few dishes for a client to sample. Let’s look at some of the best ways to elevate a tasting beyond the basics.

Setting the table for success

There’s a bit of duality in terms of perspective on client tastings. On one end, caterers can offer a completely private and customized tasting experience. This allows caterers to really get to know their clients and what their expectations are. 

“It gives us the opportunity to get to know our clients more on a personal level,” says Robin Selden (Marcia Selden Catering & Events).   

A key element of a successful tasting is to bring out the chef, which helps drive home the message. Shown in center of room: Chef Jay Varga, Executive Chef for The JDK Group, speaks to couples during a group tasting event. Photo courtesy The JDK Group

Conversely, group tastings are becoming increasingly popular among caterers because it allows them to showcase their service efficiently to a larger group of clients. These clients typically aren’t looking for a fully customized experience; rather, they are looking for a “taste” of a caterer’s curated menu offerings. 

“There are people that just need a little bit of direction,” said Chef Jason Sutton (Footers Catering) during a webinar with the International Caterers Association. “They don’t really know what they need, but they don’t necessarily need a tasting. They just need to know what food is [available] and how to organize a menu, and group tastings are a way to weed out some of these [individual] tastings that we don’t need to be doing.”

“You need to make sure the couples being invited are the right fit for a group tasting,” adds Jay Varga (The JDK Group). “Otherwise, if you end up with an unhappy couple, you’ll still find yourself doing a private tasting with them again anyway.”

Caterers can also be of two minds about whether or not to charge for a tasting. While some caterers offer completely complimentary tastings regardless of whether the clients have booked or not, others only offer complimentary tastings for those clients who have already signed on the dotted line. Group tastings typically carry with them a fee on all fronts. 

“It is worth it for you in the luxury market to spend some money to do it properly,” said Marcy Blum (Marcy Blum Associates) during last year’s Catersource + The Special Event’s opening keynote. “It is worth it to you to take the risk and do a tasting on spec; you have to spend money to make money.” 

Blue Plate Catering has several designated tasting rooms within its facility where they host their private tasting experiences. The rooms can each be customized to the client’s event and preferences. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering 

Not everyone sees it this way though. 

“I believe you should always charge for tastings,” says Varga. “Your company is still putting in the costs and labor for food and chefs to make these tastings happen, and you should be compensated for those numbers. Whether you build it right into their contract or charge separately, it’s still money out of pocket to put on a tasting.”

One of the biggest challenges with tastings is trying to balance the client’s expectations with what a caterer can successfully execute on site. 

“Doing something for two people is very different from doing it for 300,” says O’Connor. 

Special requests

The first step in planning a successful tasting experience is to first understand the client’s vision for the event. What are their preferences? Are they wanting a full custom menu, or are they okay selecting from your curated menus? Do they want plated service, a buffet setup, or food stations? What is their budget? What are their priorities? Is there a theme? Schedule a consultation to discuss their event goals, dietary restrictions, preferred cuisine, and desired atmosphere. This insight will serve as the foundation for tailoring the tasting experience to their unique needs, ensuring a personalized and memorable encounter. 

“It is very important to make sure that we fully understand the clients’ tastes and preferences beforehand so that we are showcasing a menu that features the flavor profiles they are looking for and matches their budget,” says O’Connor. 

“It’s such an intimate process, you’re working with these couples for over a year,” adds Selden. 

Tastings are a great opportunity to not only personalize (such as offering a welcome cocktail) but they also offer a chance for upselling. Shown: The JDK Group showcases its beverage board upgrade. Photo courtesy Philter Photograp

An important thing to note here, however, is that sometimes planners may request to serve as a sort of go-between with high-end luxury clients. 

“We’ve had times where the planner held all her cards and didn’t tell us anything about dietary restrictions,” said Selden during a session at this year’s Catersource + The Special Event on tastings. “You need to insist on speaking with your clients when you’re working with a planner.”

This planning stage is a great opportunity to schedule a pre-tasting with planners. 

“We are able to give them clues and tricks and insight they wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Blum. “You are impressing the planner first and foremost.”

Don’t forget to ask the planner for their opinions, too. 

“Please be a planner with an opinion,” said Jeffrey Selden during the tasting session at this year’s Catersource + The Special Event. “I don’t want to do a ton of tastings if you’re not going to be the person to support us.”

Presentation is always essential during a tasting, so take the time to plate beautifully and add garnishes. Photo courtesy Philter Photography

In addition to having an open line of communication between caterer, planner, and client, there also must be strong communication in-house between the front and back of house, more specifically between the sales and culinary teams. 

“Sales and culinary need to be cohesive,” said Chef Charles Haracz (Blue Plate Catering) during a session on tastings at this year’s Catersource + The Special Event. “We’re not going in blindly; we’re preparing ourselves ahead of time.” 

“We need to know what’s going on with the food from the sales side too,” said Trish Vogel (Blue Plate Catering) during the tasting session. 

Food for thought

A successful tasting experience hinges on the variety and quality of the dishes presented. Aim to showcase a diverse range of flavors, textures, and cooking techniques that align with your client’s preferences. Incorporate signature dishes that represent your catering brand, but also introduce innovative and seasonally inspired options to demonstrate your versatility. 

“It is called a tasting for a reason, the biggest challenge is making sure you have the right mindset going in that whoever is tasting the food may not love it whether it’s a great dish or not; you are just learning what they are looking for and how you can accommodate their likes and dislikes,” says Varga. “I definitely think there are instances where a tasting is not necessary, especially if you have streamlined menus. There are plenty of menu items that should speak for themselves, especially if it is a dish that everyone is familiar with. Chicken Marsala is Chicken Marsala, you either like it or you don’t.” 

Blue Plate Catering’s Italian buffet tasting setup. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering

Blue Plate Catering’s Nosh Station tasting setup. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering

When considering how many choices to offer, it’s best to provide options, but not so many that the clients feel overwhelmed. For example, The JDK Group offers four hors d’oeuvres and four entrée choices. Desserts and salads aren’t typically part of the lineup unless it’s a custom private tasting. Marcia Selden Catering & Events on the other hand will typically showcase 10 to 12 hors d’oeuvres, two to three appetizers, four to five entrées, and a mixture of desserts. Blue Plate Catering will showcase eight to 10 hors d’oeuvres, three first courses, four to six entrées, eight desserts, and four late-night snacks.  

Marcy’s Musts for Standing Out at a Tasting

  1. Showcase your creativity with interactive service.
  2. Tastings can help to show off your hospitable staff.
  3. You can be an active participant, but don’t be defensive.
    - Perspective clients can recognize your technique and talent, even without loving everything they have tried.
  4. Create special details that will surprise and delight clients:
    - Place cards
    - Monogrammed napkins
    - Floral arrangements
    - Live music
    - Top wait staff
    - Branded straws
    - A welcome drink
  5. Ambiance: hotel tastings will have a different vibe than an off-premise tasting. Work with your surroundings and your client.
  6. Give a sweet treat for guests to take away or a mini cooking kit they can use in perpetuity and always think of you.
  7. Follow up with a thank you note and share your excitement with the planner and clients about the event.
  8. Ask the planner for honest feedback following the tasting.

Information above courtesy Marcy Blum (Marcy Blum Associates), The Old Razzle Dazzle: Tips on Reaching the Next Level of Hospitality (Catersource +
The Special Event 2023)

A successful tasting experience goes beyond taste alone—it engages all the senses. Consider incorporating interactive elements, such as live cooking demonstrations, or set up different food stations to captivate your clients visually and allow them to experience the culinary process firsthand. Share anecdotes and stories about the origin and inspiration behind each dish, creating a multi-sensory journey that adds depth to the tasting experience.

“When in doubt, bring the chef out,” said Vogel. “Whenever there’s a chef in the room, people gravitate, and we capitalize on that by having our chefs in the room. That white coat is a great asset to us and our tastings.” 

Showcase various service styles during your tasting (plated, buffet, and stations) in order to illustrate your team’s versatility. Photo courtesy Philter Photography 

Varga agrees. 

“That personal connection is half the battle,” says Varga. “They must feel comfortable with who we are. They know our food is going to taste good, I just need them to know that they’re in good hands.” 

The way you present your dishes is also as important as their taste. Pay meticulous attention to plating and garnishing, ensuring each dish is visually appealing. Invest in high-quality tableware and utensils to enhance the overall presentation. Consistency in portion sizes and attention to detail will not only showcase your professionalism but also provide a preview of the caliber of service clients can expect at their events. Be warned though, this level of presentation can result in a lot of food waste depending on how many people are in the tasting, and how many choices they will be sampling. Blue Plate Catering combats some of this food waste by delivering a “show plate” and smaller tasting size plates to each guest in a tasting. 

“There’s an incredible amount of food that is utilized, so there’s a tremendous amount of waste,” said Haracz. “So, the first thing that comes out is the beautiful plate that they’ll see at the event, and then we come around with the small tasting plates; that way they’re tasting just the bite for the flavor.”

For tastings, Blue Plate Catering composes both a show plate (presented beautifully) as well as smaller tasting size salads (plated together on a single platter) in order to safeguard against waste and uneaten food. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering 

Also, don’t be afraid to present additional items that may not be requested. This is an opportunity to upsell and to really showcase what you know you do well. 

“We start to build our menu off of that but then our chefs also pick some items to showcase that aren’t on anyone’s menu that we know we do really well,” says Varga. 

Sometimes caterers even present a “chef’s tasting menu” where they select the dishes they want to feature; this works well for events that are a long way out, and what ingredients will be available can’t
be guaranteed. 

“We can say to them that ‘These are our favorite dishes and we just wanted to give you a taste of what we can do for you,’” said Robin Selden, “‘but, this won’t necessarily be your menu.’”

Also, consider giving clients some privacy during the tasting so that they don’t feel nervous about discussing their opinions. Still, don’t be afraid to ask for their feedback. 

“Not only do we get to wow them with our deliciousness and impress them with our attention to detail and service,” adds Robin Selden, “but we also can show our flexibility as often times when they are tasting things, they’ll have small tweaks and suggestions that we can act on immediately and show them alternatives.” 

Deliver a moment

The ambiance of the tasting also plays a pivotal role in the overall experience. This is where you can really set yourself apart. 

“The reality is you’re creating some excitement,” said Dan Joseph (Blue Plate Catering) during the tasting session at Catersource + The Special Event. “I don’t care if it’s meat and potatoes or chateaubriand; we need to make it a special occasion for them, and it’s showtime for us.” 

Each tasting plate should be as uniform as if it was an actual wedding. Photo courtesy Philter Photography

Set the stage with carefully curated decor, lighting, and music that align with the client’s vision and the theme or color palette of the event. Create an inviting and comfortable space that allows clients to focus on the flavors and presentation of each dish without distraction. Personalized touches, such as custom menus and thematic place cards and table settings, can elevate the overall ambiance and leave a lasting impression. You can even welcome your clients to the tasting with a cocktail or glass of wine. 

“We’re super passionate foodies and we get really into our tastings,” said Robin Selden during the tasting session. “We want our couples who come to have an experience of what it would feel like to actually be at that event.” 

“That impression is over the top from an experiential standpoint,” added Jeffrey Selden. “People walk away completely blown away.” 

This is also an opportunity to highlight some of your partner vendors, such as florists and rental companies.

“It brings it all together,” said Haracz.

You should also ensure you have the best staff on hand during your tastings to deliver the best service and experience. Better yet, have the kitchen staff and servers who will be working the event there to ensure seamless execution. 

“That way they can see it through to the end,” Haracz said. 

A sweet send off 

At the conclusion of the tasting event, encourage open and honest feedback from your clients. Constructive criticism can be invaluable in refining your offerings and tailoring your services to better meet their expectations. Additionally, expressing a genuine interest in their opinions fosters a sense of collaboration and strengthens the client-caterer relationship.

“Obviously the goal is that we want them to be able to make their decision that day before they leave,” said Jeffrey Selden. “But, if you don’t love something, tell us, and we can revise it—we don’t have an ego about this.”

Dessert Station tasting setup. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering 

A late night treat tasting. Photo courtesy Blue Plate Catering 

Also, don’t underestimate the appeal of sending them home with a gift, as this will solidify a lasting impression in their memories. 

“After every tasting we send our clients out with custom shopping bags and custom water,” said Robin Selden. “It’s no big deal, it’s just whatever we have that we are making that week, but people just love free things; and when they’re packaged pretty it’s this great little moment that they have left with them.”

Curating a tasting event that resonates with clients requires a lot of thought and creativity, but by doing this you can create an experience that not only showcases your skills but also leaves a lasting impression.

“Anything you do at a tasting, it’s not just to get the gig,” said Blum, “it’s to build long-term relationships.” 

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.