Tastings are essential for presenting the different food options you can provide, but they are also an opportunity to elevate the client experience beyond a simple menu review into something exciting and immersive for each person.
However, there are no strict tasting rules and everybody has a different approach. This can leave some industry professionals with the confusing challenge of navigating the tasting process in a way that is unique to their brand, while still maintaining client satisfaction.
Below, you’ll find some best practices that will help you to refine your tasting strategy and make the most of the time you have during your initial client meeting.
Booking the tasting
Regardless of your policies, there are several factors you’ll need to consider for a tasting: a timeline, the number of people attending, and pricing.
In terms of timeline, aim for the tasting to be the very last step before signing the contract. Your clients likely want to assess your kitchen’s talent before committing, but they should go into the tasting with all of their other questions answered. The tasting should simply be to confirm the value in your service, so you can move on with the booking process.
However, there is some merit to saving the tastings until after the contract has been signed. Since they are already clients, you will be saving the time and money of hosting a tasting for somebody who ends up booking a competitor. Think about which of these options work best for your business model, as well as what you are most comfortable with as the caterer.
Pricing can be tricky, and may even go hand-in-hand with the number of attendees. On one hand, you may want to request a small booking fee to secure the appointment. If you choose to go that route, that fee should be non-refundable if they do not show up; however, if they decide to book, that payment should go towards the cost of the event.
On the other hand, you may want to offer free tastings to prospective clients to earn their trust. However, to avoid letting that get out of hand, limit the number of attendees and charge for any extra guests.
Hosting a free tasting for two to four is reasonable, especially if they book. Hosting a family of eight, on the other hand, quickly becomes a costly expense. The same goes for any extraneous requests from a client — for example, if they ask you to go above and beyond your pre-set menu, you may need to consider charging extra. Set your boundaries early on so new prospects are prepared when it comes time to try your food.
Some of our industry friends have shared their tasting guidelines:
“Once we have an approved menu, the tasting is just like what they will see at the event. [We start at] 4 guests for no charge, and from there it’s a $100 charge for each additional guest.”
- Lon Lane of Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions
“We do offer tastings prior to booking. We charge $50 a person, but if they book with us, that payment goes towards the cost of the event.”
- Megan Palmer Rivera of Palmer’s Darien
As you can see, the process is different for everyone so you need to find what works for you.
Planning the menu
The tasting menu is the cornerstone of the experience, and it’s up to you choose the right selection of foods that will give your client the full array of your offerings.
You generally have two options: you can provide a pre-set tasting menu, where you have a varied selection that is standard for all groups, or you can provide a custom tasting menu, which runs off of the information that you’ve already gathered from your client and likely included in the proposal.
Pre-set menus are an excellent choice for group tastings, where you welcome many prospects to sample your food in a group setting. Custom menus, on the other hand, can be a great option for private tastings during the booking process and allow for more flexibility.
There are merits to both options, of course, as stated by our catering friends:
In terms of a pre-set menu, “The pros are that we are able to select menu items that really are special, unique, and reflect our style both in presentation and taste. The con would be the small amount of clients who will still ask for a private tasting after, to sample their specific menu item.”
- Adam Gooch of Common Plea Catering
“The menu for the tasting will depend on what’s included in their proposal. We try and have them try items that are more unusual or signature to us. We usually include a few ‘upsells’ that are not on the menu as well.”
- Megan Palmer Rivera of Palmer’s Darien
Following up afterwards
Flavors and tastes are subjective, so feedback is crucial so that you can get a better understanding of a client’s palate. Ask for feedback regarding what they did or did not like, as well as the need to accommodate to dietary restrictions. Since the tasting usually feeds right into menu creation, this is the best opportunity to get all of the cards on the table.
Be prepared to take notes based on your clients’ feedback so you can keep it with their file. If they seem uncertain about a dish, ask them what exactly they like about it and what is holding them back. It could possibly be one ingredient or flavor profile that is easily tweaked to their satisfaction. If, for example, they don’t like spicy foods, you might need to scale back on the cayenne or chili powder, so you’ll know to add other notes to boost the complexity of the dish.
At the end of the day, tastings are a great way to set high standards for your brand from the beginning of a client relationship. Take the time to add in little details, like candles and fresh-cut flowers, and perhaps a linen or cloth napkins in branded colors.
The more you can provide a top-notch experience, the easier your client will be able to see the value in the services that you provide. By prioritizing each client tasting experience, you’ll be showcasing the care and consideration you put into every single one of your events.