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Caterers Offering/Not Offering Free Tasting

[Split from http://www.chowhound.com/topics/378556 on L.A. board

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Ever so slightly miffed at them right now. I'm going to view a wedding later this month (the manager of the location invited me to see what they can do with the space), and they happen to be catering it so I called to see if, maybe just maybe, it would be possible for me to try ONE piece of ONE hors d'oeuvres while I was there.

The answer was no no and no. I mean, I understand that my request is unorthodox. I understand that what I taste will NOT reflect what's on my own personal menu. I understand that I will get my own tasting dinner later on in the process. I even understand that I might have to pay a few bucks for that one single hors d'oeuvres.

I, more than anything, understand that on that evening I will be at someone else's wedding and that the staff needs to be focused on her needs and wants.

But c'mon, ONE hors d'oeuvres? Am I being unreasonable or is it really impossible to slip me one before the guests arrive? It's not like I'm asking for a full meal. I just want a taste of something to let me if their catered food wows me, because I'll happen to be there anyway. And she really made it sound like I was trying to get free food--c'mon, going 20 miles out of my way for one hors d'oeuvres? They're not THAT special!

Am I totally off base, or are all caterers so reluctant to let you taste any of their cooking before the actual scheduled tasting for your event? Those tastings are $50 a head, and I really can't afford to reject three or four caterers before I find THE ONE.

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  1. I guess if they did a little taste for everyone who requested it, it could turn into a bigger problem. They probably get this kind of request all the time. Free food is free food, no matter how ya play it.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Clare K

      I would give them a pass, if they're otherwise polite and professional.

      How would you feel if there were interlopers in the kitchen at your wedding, eating the catered food you paid for? I know it's just one hors d'oeuvres, but that situation could snowball, and anyway, weddings are tightly managed, control freaky affairs.

      The photos look good, I'd love to try this place when I'm in the neighborhood.

      1. re: mehfactor

        Of course, you guys are right. It's smarter for them to just not promise me anything, since the paying customer that day is the bride, NOT me.

        The positive side of this is that The Kitchen seems to get nothing but great word of mouth, and their refusal of my request does seem to reflect that if hired they will be focused on my event, not on getting business from some other bride down the line. So even though I was refused, I learned something good about them. Even if it annoys the heck out of me to be commiting thousands of dollars to a place where I'll have eaten all of once.

        Calm breaths...

        1. re: Pei

          Glad you're feeling more calm. I actually respect them for setting certain boundaries w/ you as long as they were diplomatic about it. If they accommodate you, then it can be a slippery slope (w/ you or others) and they just don't want to open that up.

          Further, catering a wedding takes alot of coordination and can be very stressful behind the scenes, so giving you a taste of food is just another detail they have to worry about even though you're not the client.

          I also think that they may be worried that you'll make assumptions based on that one taste but that it won't be a dialogue w/ them in the moment and then they could lose your business. Sounds like they want to give you the proper attention and customize a menu and sampling that fits w/ your needs. Sounds like a professional operation to me...

          BTW, is it common that caterers charge for tastings these days? $50 a head sounds excessive if the goal is to court you (and then rob you blind :-)).

      2. re: Clare K

        If you are paying thousands and thousand of dollars for food for your wedding they should bend over backwards to get your business. They should pack a couple of extra things up in the kitchen before they leave the restaurant and let you taste them at the event. I would not give them my money.

        1. re: sambrown3

          Sadly (or not) we live in a culture where you don't have to give away anything for free - if the quality is there, people will pay & the Kitchen is all about quality.

      3. I'm pretty surprised to read the responses to your request. A year ago, in similar situation, in NYC, all considered venues and caterers invited us for free tasting..not at someone else's event.

        6 Replies
        1. re: serious

          Um ... [quote] I understand that I will get my own tasting dinner later on in the process. [/quote] An OP wanted to taste at someone else's event.

          1. re: mclaugh

            Yes, but none of the places I checked give FREE tastings. I'm not saying I want a lot of free stuff, I was just surprised because people on this board and people I know all said "Yeah, get a free taste of something, demand a free taste, don't go with anyone who won't give you a sample of something" and suddenly I was faced with five vendors all telling me exactly the opposite:

            "We'll send you a proposal, then you'll pay us $50/pp for a tasting, and if you go with us the $50/pp will go toward your balance."

            Meaning the four I don't go with earn $50, and I'm out $200. I'm not saying that's fair or unfair. I don't know the business, and I don't know if they're covering costs or robbing me blind. I'm just saying $200 is a lot for me, and that I wish that more (or any) caterers would hold monthly tasting events where lots of couples can go and try a few hors d'oeuvres for $20 or something just to get a sense of the caterer's style.

            But in the end, I have to just assume that these caterers have such good word of mouth that they don't need the business. It seems all the reputable caterers in LA have a steady flow of celebrity clientele that's their bread and butter, and the rest of us should feel lucky to even get our foot (and thousands of dollars) in the door.

            1. re: Pei

              [quote]Meaning the four I don't go with earn $50, and I'm out $200.[/quote]

              So let me get this straight: you're going to eat a dinner prepared by each of the caterers—only one of whom will end up with your business—and you think you shouldn't have to pay for them?

              INCREDIBLE!

              1. re: mclaugh

                No, that is NOT what I said. Please don't put words in my mouth without reading my whole post. I said I understood that caterers have a cost of business, but that I wish there were an option other than a $50 dinner or nothing.

                Bottom line is, I don't WANT to eat a full dinner from each caterer, I just wish there were a way for me to get a better sense of their style and their skill. Whether that's free, $10, or $20 is irrelevant to me. But $50 (sometimes $100 because they require both bride and groom to show up) is a lot.

                This is doubly true for caterers who have no website and keep no photos of their creations.

                Whatever people's opinions may be, this thread has been incredibly helpful. Thanks all for your contributions.

                Again, if no one had ever told me "Caterers give free tastings! Demand a free tasting or you'll get a bad caterer!" I would never dream of asking for free food. It's all about expectations. Just as most of us would be pretty ticked off if we went to a car dealership tomorrow and were told they stopped allowing test drives, I was taken a surprised by the caterers' attitudes about tastings, especially since my friend just did a round of free/cheap tastings in Manhattan. Now that I've had feedback that tastings are no longer the norm, I can readjust my expectations and budget money for the caterers that really interest me.

                1. re: Pei

                  It may be that after looking at their business they had to find a way to separate the tire kickers from the serious customers. It forces you to do a little more research and narrow your field before you decide to plunk your money down.

                  It's interesting that they all charge the same $50 even though they may be catering at different levels.

              2. re: Pei

                The catering business is interesting...everyone's system is a little different. Having been both a wedding client and catering coordinator, it can be maddening from both sides of the coin! Hopefully you'll find someone that fits for you and can "dance" with your rhythm and meet your needs.

                While $50pp does sound pricey for a tasting, I'm sure they need it to cover food, labor, and administrative costs. For well-established companies that get more than enough business, I'm sure it's also a way of weeding out people who either aren't that serious about using them or who are on shoestring budgets to begin with. If a prospective client feels the pinch from the tasting, then maybe they really can't afford the full package when you add up food, service, surcharges, etc. I'm not saying that this is your case, Pei, but the proposals do take time and energy so caterers want to have a naturally good fit.

                It's funny because for our wedding, I planned it all long-distance while I was in grad school (and on a shoestring budget). I called a few catering companies and told them what I was looking for. It was at my in-laws house and we wanted to provide some of our own food, and only a couple of places said they would be ok w/ that so that helped to narrow things down. We decided on the menu and then I sent my in-laws out to taste (it was free). They gave them some feedback about the food, and I signed the contract and sent out the deposit. Done.

                It's very strange for me to think that I never tasted one morsel of their food before going with them, but I guess I liked the menu and flexibility, trusted the references and my in-laws' palates enough, and I liked their customer service (just as important as the food, IMO). In the end, the food was pretty good (what I actually tasted) and the service was stellar but not the most memorable part of the day.

                Well, good luck w/ your search and tastings! Look forward to hearing the outcome...

          2. Admittedly, this was a long time ago (20+ years), but when we were preparing for our wedding in the Long Beach/South Bay (CA) area, we received free tastings from a few caterers...they told us when/where they were going to be, and asked us to be discreet about it. Maybe times have changed and good caterers don't have to market themselves so much any more.

            1. Pei, since all you're asking for is a small taste and not the complete menu it might be possible to visit a caterer just before they're packing up for an event. You won't be at the event but could have a bite or two without being intrusive to the paying party. Check with one or two of your choices.

              Having suggested this, it will not be a good time to question the caterer about your party, possible changes to the food you are eating, menu suggestions, etc. The caterer will be very busy and occupied with their job.

              As a former caterer, I can tell you that it is a pain to do those $20 "bridal" tastings. Many a B&G think of this as a cheap date, expecting the caterer to fall all over themselves. We only did a couple of them and discontinued because our word of mouth business was so successful that we didn't need the hassle of the freebie-seekers. (Sorry, but that's how you are labeled.)

              3 Replies
              1. re: Sherri

                Thank you. The more I think about it, the more I think that down the line, when the caterer can see that I'm a serious customer and just happen to be super anal about food compared to everyone else, she'll find ways to assuage my fears and maybe be more willing to work with me. She can't possibly have such good word of mouth for no reason, right?

                1. re: Pei

                  Find out why the word of mouth is so good. Is the caterer getting great press just for showing up and not poisoning everyone or is the food, service and planning really exemplary? In other words, know who is giving the critique. How do you value their opinion? If knowledgable people are speaking and they are still great recommendations, go with them.

                  If you are polite while being patiently persistant I cannot imagine the caterer not taking you seriously. This likely will translate into you getting what you want.

                  In defense of caterers everywhere, much too much time and energy is wasted on those seeking information, menus etc but are not serious about hiring you. Their sister-in-law, friend, neighbor etc will "do" their affair and they want suggestions and a wierd kind of thrill knowing how much money they think they'll save by doing this. We tend to develop a thick skin about freebie-seekers, lumping some unfairly into this category. Get past the stereotyping and you'll be able to have a good working relationship with your caterer.

                  1. re: Pei

                    Just another thing to consider: You admit to being "super anal about food." Perhaps caterers look at your event as a one-shot PITA, working with a micro-manager, who is questioning how they run their businesses, charge a certain way, and that your needs are somehow different than any other clients', etc. They don't think you'll be a long term client worth cultivating past this one event. They could be simply weighing the amount of up-front time your requests are costing. Even phone conversations cost time/money. There's a lot of low hanging fruit out there for popular, successful caterers who are in demand.
                    I'm sure you are knowledgeable and sincere but they're running businesses.

                2. The expectation for free tastes of things has always sort of baffled me. When choosing a dry cleaner, I don't go ask if they'll clean a shirt for me for free, just to see, with the promise that I'll be brining in 3 suits a week for the next 2 years if they do a good job.

                  I have a small catering business of my own (I don't do weddings...well, actually, I did one as a favor, but I do almost exclusively small private dinners because its really just me unless I can convince a friend to give up an evening to come help out). Free food isn't usually kicking around to be handed out. Further, you want to give high quality items to everyone so you have work pretty hard to make everything that comes out of the kitchen. Feeding a whole bunch of people for free in the hopes of getting a few of them to book an event...the math for the caterers is the same as it is for you. If you go to 4 caterers and spend $50 per to try the food, you're out the money for all of the ones you don't use. If the caterer feeds 20 couples and 4 of them book an event, they're out the cost to feed 16 couples.

                  I'd focus on whether the caterer is responsive to your desires for particular food, willing to adapt what they do to the kinds of food you're interested in having.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ccbweb

                    Well, a dry cleaning costs a few dollars, and even if a shirt's ruined it's not a whole lot. A botched catering event costs the host thousands of dollars and a lot of unhappy friends. I guess most people liken a free tasting to a free slice of apple at the farmers' market. Then again, the biggest purchase of our lives is a house and we certainly don't ask for a week's free rent. I guess it's all relative. I fully appreciate the time, money, and effort that goes into a catering business. I wish it were different, but understand why it's not. It's just tricky because testing food isn't like testing a car, or flowers, or a dress, or invitations. You can't look at it, try it, and then give it back to the vendor.

                    1. re: Pei

                      I understand and agree with the sentiment you have. And you're right, it really is all relative. I think we (in an American cultural sense) have a different attitude toward food service than we do any other sort of service. From expecting a free dessert on a birthday to expecting a chef to alter dishes to each diner's personal tastes, etc. We ask things of people who work in food that we wouldn't ever think of asking of people in any other industry. I think it goes to the fundamental nature of food...it is, regardless of how fancy, how expensive, a basic and elemental necessity for life. Cars, flowers, invitations, etc simply aren't essential to life.

                      And you're totally right that dry cleaning is relatively inexpensive when compared to wedding catering...but the idea still holds as an example of what I just noted....we approach food very differently than most anything else. We're probably right to, but it does create some unique situations.