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Question about catering and free tastings

Is it fair to expect a catering company to provide a free tasting for 12 or more people? I ask because I'm currently researching catering companies for our Thanksgiving lunch at work (about 200 people). I had someone offer to bring in some food for us to sample and I only invited a few people because I didn't want to ask the catering company to provide food for a ton of people. Of course, now some people are all upset because they didn't get invited and think I should have invited everyone to help make the decision. When, in reality, it's probably going to come down to who has the cheapest prices anyway. Is this common for catering companies to provide that large of a tasting? And is it fair to request that large of a tasting? I really don't feel like it is fair, but I'm curious to hear what your opinions are.

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  1. I don't know about an office lunch, but I have to say that for weddings you're not guaranteed of a free tasting (and there are only two people as opposed to 12). I only received a free tasting after I signed the contract and forked over the deposit. And I've heard stories of companies charging for tastings.

    So my opinion is the free tasting for 12 people may be a bit too much.

    1. No, it's not fair and many companies won't give you a tasting til after you've put down a deposit. And those that do often require you to pay for it. 12 people getting free food is ridiculous; catering companies need $ like any other company. One person or two people is a tasting, a sampling. 12 people is the last supper.

      1. "Of course, now some people are all upset because they didn't get invited and think I should have invited everyone to help make the decision. When, in reality, it's probably going to come down to who has the cheapest prices anyway."

        There are a couple of problems here:
        1. A committee decision is worthless. The more people involved in deciding about the food, the easier it is to get off track and begin hearing about who likes what, what "really" constitutes a Thanksgiving lunch, what Aunt Martha VS grandma used to serve, ETC. It is a waste of everyone's time and produces nothing, except maybe a free lunch for the tasters.
        2. The cheapest price part of the job requirement needs to be disclosed to the caterer from the start. Expecting them to fly blind is unfair. They may opt out and your problem is solved. The "El Cheapo" Catering Company will likely have a huge advantage over another company who uses quality ingredients, hires top-notch people and takes pride in their superb product. You cannot compare a Bentley with a Yugo and expect to get worthwhile information.

        Is the research you are doing a job requirement? Have you been specifically tasked to find this caterer? If so, I expect you will have been given parameters to follow. The rest of those "some people" need to back off and allow you to do your job in a professional manner.

        FYI: this isn't the first time a catering company will be asked for a free lunch.

        1. Gosh, I hate this question, mostly because I've been trying to find a fair and equitable way to answer it while still staying in business.

          Yes, I would love to entice you with my food and have it blow you away to the extent that you will hire me over any other competitors because of it's superior quality, creativity and presentation. I pay alot of money for fresh ingredients and I pay my staff well so that I have great trustworthy people to prepare it. We don't use pre-prepared items or frozen food, so everything we make is made fresh, and it can take up to 12 man-hours of labor to get everything just right. Since every menu is custom-made for a particular client, it may also mean bringing in special inventory.

          And then -- then! -- a client goes and orders from the cheapest place around who used frozen vegetables, canned potatoes (I've seen it, people!) and pre-made entrees that they've pulled out of a freezer and take 30 minutes to throw together. Breaks my heart.

          So here's my policy (and I welcome feedback from anyone here, because I'm still trying to get it right without seeming like a jerk): I charge $100 per person for a tasting for ten people or less, paid on the day of the tasting. The tasting takes place at my place of business and I prepare it and serve it (if I just deliver it to your office and you let it sit for two or three hours before serving, I run the double risk of you not liking the food because it's been mistreated, and the liability if some one gets sick for eating food that was stored improperly). If you sign a contract and pay a deposit after the tasting, I will deduct the full amount paid for the tasting from the final bill.

          I HATE doing this, because I feel like it makes me sound distrustful of a potential client (which may be true) and underconfident about my food (nothing is further from the truth). Fact is I am a little gunshy about giving it away for free (been there, done that, and they went for the lowest bidder). I get the sense that people, especially larger groups, don't value what they don't have to pay for. If that's out of line, please let me know. Just being honest here.

          If there are other approaches to this tasting thing that anyone out there would like to recommend, I would love to hear them.

          26 Replies
          1. re: chefbeth

            This may depend on your location. If you are the lone caterer that charges for a tasting, I can see why people may be miffed about your policy. But as a NYer, I think you've got the right approach. Personally, I would have been more than happy to pay for my tasting, especially as the cost would have been deducted if I signed the contract. I had to first sign a contract and pay a deposit before I got a free tasting. I would have been more comfortable with it the other way around. I would have even been happy if I could pay for a tasting, even if it wasn't deducted if I signed up with them. I hated forking over thousands of dollars without knowing exactly what I was getting into.

            I think people who would get outraged at something like this (if this is common practice where you live) may be people you probably wouldn't want to deal with in the first place. It would help weed out the people who just do free tastings to get a free meal. And you are absolutely correct about value -- many people don't perceive value in something if you give it away for free. There have been many studies about this.

            1. re: chefbeth

              I guess I understand your logic, but from the POV of the customer, aren't you saying that you're only charging them if they don't like your food? If your food isn't up to snuff, why should the customer be penalized?

              I haven't ever booked a caterer, so I don't have any real world examples, but what I'd hope for is a free tasting for a larger event - if I wanted to bring lots of people or sample lots of things, I could see paying a discounted fee. But I think $100/pp is excessive - the tasting should certainly not cost more /pp than the actual catered event will.

              1. re: akq

                While a customer may not choose the venue because the food isn't up to snuff at a tasting, it isn't always the case. They may decide to just go with the less expensive option. Or as I mentioned above, there are those who are just out to get a free meal.

                And you don't know how much the actual catered event is. Chefbeth's events may run over $200/person.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  Agreed - there are lots of reasons a person might not choose a venue, but it seems pretty lame to make the customer pay a bunch to try out the food to determine if it's right for their event. I guess to me it's the cost of doing business - I'd expect that if the caterer is interested in getting business, they'd be willing to let people sample their food to entice the customers into booking with them. In my business (law), we routinely do free consultations with people to give them an idea of what we can do for them, and see whether the client and the attorney "click". If the client likes us and wants to move forward with the work, we charge for the actual work we do, but not generally for the initial meeting(s). Not charging for the initial meetings or tastings makes sense because it lowers the barriers for new clients to try you out, and even if it's not the right time/situation right then, maybe the client will want your services in the future or recommend you to someone else...they are more likely to come back if you left them with a good impression than if you made them feel like they were taken advantage of (and I do not mean to say that Chefbeth's potential customers feel taken advantage of!).

                  Also, I meant that $100/pp for a 200 person work Thanksgiving lunch catering was excessive.

                  1. re: akq

                    I know that free consultations are quite the norm for lawyers, but are not necessarily so for catering gigs. Where I'm located, free tastings aren't universal. Not sure if you can compare legal work to catering -- kind of like comparing apples and oranges.

                    Thanks for clarifying what you meant about $100/person. I assumed that when chefbeth quoted that, she wasn't necessarily talking about catering an office lunch.

                    1. re: akq

                      akg, there is a definite difference between a lawyer consult (using NO food products) VS a caterer providing gratis food. Intellectual property VS food costs + labor costs does not add up to an equal equation. Granted the lawyer brings training, education and expertise to the table and so does the caterer *plus* there is the added cost of the caterer's food product. I do not see this as an equal example.

                      While both are seeking new clients, the caterer is actually incurring out-of-pocket costs while the attorney is not.

                      1. re: Sherri

                        If we can agree time is money then each profession and professional has tangible expenses. A lawyer might share documents and caterer food bites. In my industry we provide consultations and often bring refreshments.

                        Back on point, Kellie was right when she had concerns that the tasting shouldn't include a large group of people. As someone else suggested "tasting" is not suppose to be a free meal. Nor would an attorney (or I consulting) present to a large group gratis.

                        Stricking a balance is always key but it shouldn't be hard to understand that your time, skills, area of expertise has monetary value. The cost of doing business is the risk taken if your services are not accepted.

                        1. re: HillJ

                          I agree. I guess I was trying to say that I think that caterers should at least consider (1) not charging for tastings, or (2) if they charge, charge less than the /pp cost of the event in order to lower the bar to potential customers. And I personally don't like the idea of having to pay for the tasting only if the caterer isn't right for the event - why should I be penalized if the caterer overpromises and underdelivers?

                          Lots of professions and companies provide free or reduced charge samples to prospective customers in order to get customers to try their products. Car dealers have free test drives, cosmetics counters have samples/testers, food companies have free tastings in supermarkets, even starbucks gives out free samples of new new/seasonal products - all to get a customer who would normally walk right past to stop, try the product, see how wonderful it is, and be willing to purchase the product with less fear.

                          I agree that the tasting shouldn't be a free meal - I can understand that in some cases the potential customer might want to see the entire dish, plated perfectly, etc. just as it will be in on the day - but what's wrong with just doing on plate of each thing and letting multiple people try it? I don't think it make sense to do a separate entire meal for 12 committee members, unless it's a really big event and the caterer thinks it's worth it. I don't give 2 free hours of my time to every person who cold-calls the firm, but we might give many many hours to woo a potential client who has lots of work for us in the long run or who might open doors for us.

                          1. re: akq

                            akq, don't you think the size, buying power and return on past performance would play a roll in when a company decides to offer a freebie or charge? I don't think it's a one size fits every scenario call and in this day & age solid communication of potential client expectation is so important. I don't mind paying for a "preview" if the service warrants it. But I don't typically assume anything as I wouldn't want a potential client to assume incorrectly about my services.

                            At some point we're all providers & clients of some service. As long as the plan is well thought out, communicated to a T-problems are less likely later.

                            1. re: HillJ

                              I totally agree - I thought that's what I'd said (maybe not very clearly).

                              1. re: akq

                                akq, you most certainly were. I was lending my solidarity :)

                            2. re: akq

                              it's one thing if the company luncheon will be a box lunch affair, the caterer is a sandwich company who offer samples: they just make a few extra sandwiches along with the rest of their orders and run them over for the tasting. pizzas for pizza company, gyros, bagels, whatever-no problem.

                              it's another whole box of crawdads for formal meals & special menus. caterers will typically *not* have premium or non-seasonal ingredients just lying around in case a client who is out shopping caterers decides they would like to see what one plate of food looks like.

                              "what is wrong with making just one plate of food,"--i assume you don't cook. making one portion of food from scratch is often just as time consuming as making the same for 10 people, or more. consider having the senior law partner of the firm answer phones and do filing for 10 hours. you'd consider that a waste of the attorney's time, yet you'd have an exec chef dinking around making 12 oz of watercress soup from scratch in a little bitty saucepan, when s/he could prepare food for up to 100 people in that amt of time? then roasting one, just one, chicken supreme in white wine sauce? then the five other mains the folks would like to see & taste? going to the store to buy baby vegetables and single fish fillets at retail price because it's 6 months prior to a spring wedding? what happens to the rest of the cake, once one slice is plated out at a tasting for the prospective clients?

                              a car salesman can offer a test drive in a car, because they have the car on hand, and its value is not diminished after a 5 minute drive. there isn't a slice missing from the car after the test drive.

                              once again in a catering thread, i think people are confusing the *product* (food) with the *service.* it's inappropriate to expect free special menu tastings from a caterer, just as you wouldn't bring a suit into a tailor and ask for free alterations as a "sample" of their work.

                              1. re: soupkitten

                                Thank you for being much more eloquent than I was (above). Well said indeed.

                                1. re: Sherri

                                  That's why I love soupkitten's posts. She knows her stuff and has a gift with words. SK, you should think about blogging or something like that.

                                2. re: soupkitten

                                  I think maybe I struck a nerve, and I apologize if I did. I thought I was answering questions posed by the OP and chefbeth and am trying to be helpful. Maybe people take my suggestions, maybe they don't - I am certainly not trying to be offensive to anyone.

                                  That said, your analogies don't make sense.

                                  Senior law partners don't answer the phones/file and probably won't be any good at it. A caterer does prepare food. I am not saying that the caterer should do something he/she doesn't have the skills for...but senior law partners do spend a lot of non-billable time marketing and bringing in clients, in part by giving "free samples" of their skills. Makes sense to me that a caterer might do the same.

                                  Test drives do have a cost to the company, you're just discounting it (wear on the car, staff time, storage, etc.).

                                  I wouldn't expect a tailor to do free alterations because I wouldn't need them to - I'd expect that they'd have samples of their work that I could see, though (pictures, sample garments, etc.) so I can see their work and I would expect to see samples of fabrics, etc. for custom garments. If, on the other hand, I was interviewing garment manufacturers for produce a large order of clothing (or even silkscreeners, etc.), I would expect that they'd do a sample and not charge for it. With food, obviously, it's not just the looks that matter - the only way someone can actually determine the quality of the food, I'd think, is to try it.

                                  Chefbeth didn't say she wouldn't do tastings, she just said that she charges a flat $100/pp *if* the client doesn't book with her. She's willing to do the tasting, pay for/find the ingredients, make the food "gratis", if someone does book with her. My suggestion, meant to be helpful and in response to her request for feedback about her system, was that she might consider the benefits of *not* charging or charging less for tastings in order to lower the barrier to new customers.

                                  I understand about the time involved in cooking one plate vs. multiple, but what the other posters were pointing out is the cost of the *materials*, not the labor that are the problem because it requires an actual monetary outlay by the caterer (that other posters weren't counting for labor/intellectual property outlays). Two lobsters cost more than one lobster. My point was - if you don't want to buy and prepare 12 lobsters (1/pp), then just prepare one, but let 12 people try it if the customer wants to bring 12 people. Not sure what is so controversial about that.

                                  The OP was about a tasting given by a catering company for a limited number of people, the question being whether it was appropriate to open the tasting up to a larger group. If, as you say, it is just as difficult and expensive to prepare the tasting for a small group, why not invite a larger group? What I meant was - it doesn't matter to me whether they bring 2 or 12 people if the caterer doesn't have to prepare additional servings for each person. No the 12 people aren't each getting a free meal, but that's fine with me - the point is to try the food not to get full on a freebie.

                                  The seasonal menu issue is interesting - not sure how that's handled...maybe chefbeth can tell us? As for the cake - bakeries and wedding cake designers do free cake tastings all the time so it can't be too difficult, impossible or expensive. You can always bake a smaller cake...

                                  1. re: akq

                                    akg, I think you've been very courteous with your posts. I don't think there's any need to apologize. I can understand that you are trying to be helpful to chefbeth and have her see your perspective.

                                    It may make sense to you for caterers to follow the lawyer business model. However, not all caterers build in the price of the tastings into their fees. And the price of tastings are not just the cost of the ingredients -- it includes labor. As soupkitten mentioned before, making soup for one and making soup for 10 takes almost the same amount of labor. As I said before, these are two completely different fields with different criteria. Catering companies don't necessarily follow that business model. Some caterers may do that -- and they'll probably charge a lot more per person for the same amount of food/type of food than a caterer that chooses not to build that into their prices. But a lot of caterers don't. I'd rather pay $100 or whatever it is for a tasting than to pay X more dollars per person if I hire them because I'm subsidizing all of the people who eat the food for free and decide not to hire them.

                                    I feel that industry norms are important here. Doctors (with the exception of plastic surgeons doing elective surgery) generally don't give out free consultations (at least in NYC), even if they're cash-based (versus doctors who accept insurance and will bill insurance for consultations). That's how their business model is structured. If I ran across a doctor that gave free consultations, I'd be suspicious -- because that's just not the industry norm. I'd think they were incompetent (even if they weren't) and really needed free consultations to attract patients. And I have received free consultations from lawyers, and would be suspicious if they didn't for the very same reason -- that it's the norm to give free consultations. If a lawyer didn't give me a free 10-15 minute consultation, I'd think they were trying to put one over me. Chefbeth may be able to work out free tastings in our fee structure -- but she'd probably have to raise her prices an awful lot. But if she lives in an area where EVERYBODY offers free tastings with the exception of her, then it may perhaps be prudent for her to rethink her pricing structure.

                                    And I've got to say that I need to live where you're living because a wedding cake tasting was not free for me. But, again, for wedding cake companies that provide free tastings, it's already been factored in their pricing structure.

                                    1. re: akq

                                      wow Akq-- this thread certainly blew up on us in 24 hrs, huh!

                                      first, there is no need to apologize to me, we only have a difference in opinion. if caterers could structure their business models like lawyers. . . well, there are various reasons why they don't. i'll try my angle again:

                                      TASTINGS-- let alone free tastings, are problematic for reasons of: 1) labor inefficiency, 2) high cost of non-standard ingredients 3) waste

                                      caterers who are selling their services generally can't justify raising prices for all of their customers in order to give out free meals (tastings). many caterers get new customers by referral, or through the customer experiencing the quality of their food and service at an event (ex: the new customer was a guest at a nonprofit dinner, wedding, party, etc catered by the caterer, so the customer has already pretty much experienced what the caterer does). if a customer comes in familiar with the quality the caterer puts out, and is ready to settle on a menu, it doesn't make sense to charge them for food another customer who's shopping around for a completely different type of event may taste, who may or may not decide to go with this caterer. it also makes no sense to upcharge long-term catering customers who use the company frequently for the tastings of one-time, one-event customers. because each job is different, caterers must be able to adjust their fees in ways that make sense.

                                      the point i was trying to make re: senior law partners answering phones above, which apparently was unclear, was that in any business, it's important to use highly skilled people to do the tasks they are most suited for. you don't want ridiculously overqualified lawyers organizing the office supplies, you want them working efficiently to bring in money for the firm. when you take an exec chef who normally oversees a kitchen that can put out a hundred or few covers, slow her/him down and have this person work on a truly miniature level, to produce six different meals from scratch, 1) you've taken your top performing staff member out of the team 2) you've chopped efficiency by a large or huge percentage, depending on the size of the team 3) it's a very poor use of this team member's time-- anything at all, including writing menus, rotating stock in the cooler, or adjusting next week's food order, would be more efficient than this one person dinking around cutting up 1/2 a chicken to make 1/2 liter of stock to reduce it to make 5 oz sauce, opening up a #10 can of capers to use 1 oz of them (will the rest of the capers now go to waste?). . .

                                      bringing us to the ingredients: for special events, like a wedding, the chef must generally put in a special order to several distributors, if they are decent, or sysco/usfoods, if they're not-- or in my case, coordinating with up to a dozen small local farms, in addition to distributors, to get special ingredients specifically for the special menu. when the event is still 6 months off, the chances of the specific ingredients for the specific menu for the specific event being available just sitting in the walk-in is practically nil. want to try out the menu 6 months in advance? someone will have to go to the store and get single portions of those (or similar) ingredients at retail price.

                                      bringing us to waste: remember the #10 can of capers we busted out in order to garnish one tasting plate? if the company can't use these capers up quick, it's waste. if i order a case of green beans to have them on hand for 3 menu tastings, and can't use the rest of the case of beans before they spoil, it's waste. catering companies order steak, seafood and chicken by the case-- can't use the whole case? waste. wheels of cheese, cases of salad greens and fruit-- you get the picture i hope. waste inflates food prices, and waste is wrong and gross, so everyone tries to fight it. when we order the herbs, we have a plan for where they're going, not "oh maybe someone will come in for a tasting." food cost is real, food waste is real, caterers don't have unlimited supplies of pristine produce and meat in single servings somewhere back in the fridge to whip out and transform into a tasting plate in 10 minutes. the food for your party is ordered as close to the date of the event as possible, and the rest of the food is spoken for by the restaurant or the hotel or someone else's event.

                                      wrt waste in scaled recipes: you stated in your post: "you can always bake a smaller cake." well no, you can't. with the scale recipes used in restaurants you can only take it down so far. you can't mix a mini-cake using 1/2 an egg. shoot. talk to any home baker about his/her favorite cake recipe. ask him/her to reduce it to a one-cupcake size, mix it up for you, preheat the oven for the one cupcake, stand there and monitor it (it will bake differently due to its size). i'm sure the person will give you a hard look-- it's not worth a person's time to reduce a recipe to the smallest possible portion, make a cupcake, throw the leftover batter in the trash, expend electricity or fuel to heat an oven for the single cupcake. . . this type of rinky-dink stuff is obviously a waste of time for the home baker, no different for caterers.

                                      for the reasons above, free tasting menus are problematic. i personally think ChefBeth is on the right track with how she charges for tasting menus, because $100 pp is in line with what many personal chefs charge, and that's essentially the service people are asking for with a formal tasting menu-- to have a qualified person plan a formal menu, do the shopping at retail, and execute the cooking of up to 6 different mains, with accompaniments, for a small group of people. especially with the time consuming nature of doing this, and the retail costs of ingredients, ChefBeth won't make much money charging this way, but she won't be out money either. her customers are charged enough so that they aren't thinking that her time or the value of her regular services is free, and they are getting what they are paying for-- meals prepared by a professional personal chef.

                                      some caterers can figure out ways to do it differently. caterers who do one or 2 weddings a week will do bridal fairs and schedule tastings for many couples on the same day. they can offer much lower prices because the larger group makes the labor and ingredient costs much more managable. everyone tastes the same items though, and the company may not do custom menus, so it's sometimes a tradeoff depending on what the couple wants. hotels and caterers that do lots of weddings can also sometimes schedule a tasting on the same day that a similar menu is prepared for another party. by tasting the similar menu that's already being prepared, they can bring the cost of the tasting down for the couple, but there should be a charge for the meal, which is still a meal-- still a plate of prepared food-- i do happen to think it's appropriate that the people who *eat* the food are charged for it, not the folks having the party in the next room.

                                      again, Akq i appreciate your pov, but imo caterer's fees and lawyers' shouldn't be compared. i think everyone realizes that lawyers are paid much more than caterers, who must operate on a margin, and have ingredient, fuel, staffing and waste issues that don't correlate. imo, caterers shouldn't feed people for free any more than restaurants should-- it's the fastest way i can think of to go out of business.

                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        Whoa, interesting response - I particularly like the points about waste you bring up. Clearly not something I'd thought of.

                                        Anyway, I don't know how I'd solve all the problems you raise, not having any experience in the area *at all*. But I still think it's a bit of an overstatement to say that tastings are a waste of the caterer's time. I think the point I was trying to make (poorly, no doubt), was that sometimes it's easy to suffer false economy - by avoiding the expense of doing tastings the caterer might miss opportunities to bring in clients who might benefit the caterer in the long run through their business and referrals. It's a toughie because it's hard to know who you're turning away vs. who is still comming through the door...and maybe chefbeth would relax the charge for a particularly sweet gig - like a major oscar party or a royal wedding or something else too good to pass up.

                                        Clearly there needs to be some kind of balance - I don't think caterers should offer free fancy meals to anyone and everyone who walks in the door, but I also am not sure I like chefbeth's policy because it might be enough of a deterrent to potential customers to make her lose business.

                                        I can't imagine hiring a caterer for an important event without trying the food either at a tasting or at another event. If I'm ordering the same food I'd had previously from that caterer, or if I've had enough of the caterer's food to trust that he/she is going to bring top quality regardless of the dish - no tasting necessary. But if it's something I haven't had before or I am just not that familiar with the caterer, I'd want to try the food and I wouldn't necessarily know that I'd go with that particular caterer until I try the food. I think it's reasonable to charge for a tasting and for an upscale menu, maybe $100 is a reasonable charge per person...but I do think the charge for a tasting should be somewhat related to the per person cost for the food (so I don't expect to pay $100 per person to taste a menu that is going to cost me $20 per person). (My comment that $100 was excessive was directed at the company thanksgiving lunch, not at a formal 8 course high-end do, etc.)

                                        Although I've never personally hired a caterer, I have been involved with the committee that hires them at work (like the OP - I feel your pain!). Earlier this year as we planned our in-house holiday party, I lobbied staying with the same caterer as last year, but others on the committee wanted a change. I am not going to agree to switch to a new caterer without having some idea of the quality of their food, so other committee members found caterers who would do free tastings. We did not consider any caterers who would not do the tastings because there is no reason to switch from the past caterer to an unknown without reason to switch and there's no reason to pay to see if we like someone else better than the past caterer, imo, because the past cater was fine. Chefbeth may not cater parties like ours, but even if she did, she would not be in the running because of the tasting fee. Perhaps that doesn't hurt her because there are enough clients who won't pass her company up because of the fee, I don't know - but I thought (since she asked) that she might want to at least know that the policy may have this effect.

                                        1. re: akq

                                          it would be cool, i think, to do bigger tastings a few times a year for prospective catering clients who haven't had the food-- do a limited menu buffet or something where people can try you out. i've thought about doing that, but event catering is not the major part of my business and i don't do a lot of promotion. it also seems like the only people who are doing real advance planning for parties these days are people getting married, & i'm not trying to get wedding business, although with the economy i've had to take wedding jobs i'd have liked to pass on :) it would be a good idea though, for a caterer who specialized in weddings or other seasonal events. it's tough to say, every caterer is different, and then every customer (for me) is a custom job with their own special requests, bless 'em. i don't really know the catch-all answer about how to handle tastings (it's why this thread caught my eye), but i do know my own obstacles.

                                          i personally would relax a fee system to break into a certain market like oscar parties, governor's mansion, etc and agree with you that there are gigs sweet enough to put it all out there for free for the prospective client to evaluate, just to be in the running for jobs like that. it is amazing, at least in my area, how the long-established high end caterers have those areas "locked up," though!!! i do send out free samples and promo of more casual dining options, like sandwiches (and soup!!!) all the time. imo the best catering clients have come through referrals or have had our food at an event-- that's always great because they already have a degree of familiarity and enthusiasm.

                                          i think a lot of people who are serious about using catering services *regularly,* do as Hill Food suggests in the post below: they get a small, simple meal like sandwich platters/ business lunch, and evaluate quality, presentation, professionalism, promptness, freshness etc, and then if the caterer "passes" they progress to bigger jobs. serious hosts can have quite a "little black book" of quality caterers for all occasions in their own area.

                                    2. re: soupkitten

                                      Right on, soupkitten! Very well said indeed.

                                      While I have no objection to handing out the odd free sandwich or any other item that is on my regular cafe menu, most of my catering jobs are custom ones that require bringing in inventory, some of it highly specialized. Preparing a Thanksgiving menu for two or ten is easily going to cost me $250 or more in ingredients and labor when it's done in August, even though that same meal will cost me much less in November when I'm doing it for up to a thousand clients. Economies of scale, people.

                                      I never look to make a profit on tastings, but I do look to recover my costs. I hate to say it, but there are too many people out there looking for a free lunch.

                                      And a great tasting doesn't guarantee a great meal. There are two different skill sets involved in making a great dinner for two and a great dinner for 100 or 250 guests. Given time, any cook can put together a terrific tasting for 2 or 10, but that's no guarantee that they can pull it off for a larger group. I hear from clients all the time that they get a great tasting and a low bid from a competitor, but that the caterer just couldn't (or wouldn't) pull it off for their event. In some cases, they choose menu items which aren't suitable for large groups or they simply can't handle the volume. In the most egregious cases, they substitute inferior ingredient for the ones they used in the tasting. It's called "buying business" and while I consider people who do business this way to be more con artists than caterers, I've seen competitors do it more often than I'd like to admit.

                                      My advice to people hiring caterers is to develop a relationship with them. Start with a small, relatively inexpensive job. See if they pay attention to the details. Check out their references and see if other clients who have similar expectations to yours have been met. If the caterer has any kind of reputation at all, other chefs in other restaurants will know who they are and might have some valuable feedback for you. How long have they been in business? Do they have a lot of repeat customers?

                                      And if what you're looking for from a caterer is a low bid, tell them that up front. Everyone in this business has to deal with the fact that the vast majority of our clients have budgetary constraints. Let us know what we're dealing with. And if they promise you a spaceship for the price of a compact car, move on. Chances are they won't even be around in November.

                                      1. re: chefbeth

                                        Out of curiousity - in your example, preparing a Tgiving menu for 2 or 10 people will cost you $250 - why then the per person price? If 10 of my family want to decide whether this is the right caterer for our super-duper Tgiving - why should we either send one delegate (for $100) or suck up a $1000 charge for the 10 of us to try the meal? All things being equal, I could see passing on a caterer because I don't want to front $1000 to see whether the food is going to be right for my family/friends, especially if I have other caterers with a lower/free tasting option. I would likely do the tasting with the other caterer and at least give them a shot, while I would be more likely to pass on an expensive tasting, putting that caterer totally out of the running.

                                        I don't think it makes sense to ask for a full tasting on a smaller catered dinner - if we're interviewing caterers for a 20 person T-giving menu, I might ask to taste a particular side dish or something, I guess (not liking Tgiving food, it's hard for me to imagine wanting an extra Tgiving in August), but I'd understand if you didn't want to do the whole bird UNLESS it was some kind of special preparation that I am not sure about (e.g. Umm...your signature candy-cane coated turducken sounds interesting, but I am not *totally sure* grandma smith will like it...maybe we could try it or just go with something more standard?).

                                        Anyway, although seemingly resoundingly unpopoular, my suggestions were in response to your request for feedback. Although I understand liking feedback that agrees with you and disliking feedback that suggests an alternate POV, I hope you take my suggestions in the helpful spirit I meant them.

                                        1. re: akq

                                          Gaahh! You got me dead to rights, akg! I see now that my previous posting concentrated more on where soupkitten and I agree and less on the valid feedback that you took the time to give me.

                                          I don't consider your comments to be unpopular or unwelcome (as a matter of fact, I find you to be extraordinarily diplomatic) -- but like most people I gave more weight to those who agreed with me, and for that I owe you an apology. Give me a day or two to process what you've been helpful enough to suggest (and you've raised some extremely valid points above) and I'll see if I can take another shot at putting together a policy (or a way of expressing it) that would be more to the liking of a new client of your caliber. Thanks for your help, and please excuse my rudeness in not acknowledging it sooner.

                                      2. re: soupkitten

                                        Holy cow, you hit the nail on the head. I used to cater weddings at a hotel and the "tastings" were the biggest PITA. The tasting was for two, but somehow the bride and groom always needed to bring both sets of parents, and wouldn't it be nice to try all the items on the menu? So there I was, making 4 oz of sauce. Making 2 servings of soup. It was so much less about seeing how their wedding dinner would look and taste and more about getting free dinner for six.

                                        1. re: manraysky

                                          Is it really that difficult to say no? If you don't wish to provide a tasting or a tasting for more than the bride & groom, what is wrong with saying, "no I can't do it." A business relationship takes two (okay maybe more if the people are really pushy) but come on, we're pros...the word NO is not that hard.

                                          1. re: HillJ

                                            Well, in this case, I was not the one making that decision. The catering sales people would let their clients add on guests and add on choices. As an employee in the kitchen, my time and food cost didn't come out of their budget.

                                            It may have changed since I left the hotel. Other hotels handled their tastings differently--they prepared one sample plate of each dish for display, then made a buffet of all the items for tasting and invited all of the clients to come to the tasting.

                                            1. re: manraysky

                                              manraysky, thank you for providing add'l detail because you help illustrate a fine point that isn't wasted on pros offering these services...we should work as a team always....as you indicated the sales people letting clients make requests without running it by the people responsible for following thru leads to problems. This happens to so many of us, that's why we have company meetings, right! To iron out and honor the policies we can and cannot bend. I know it's not easy but blaming the client (or potential client) is too easy. Pros learn/know how to say no or take the hit when they opt to say yes. We shouldn't blame the client for eating $100.00 worth of shrimp during a tasting if we didn't have the brass to charge.

                        2. Katie, At my company we have staff events four times a year. We've been using the same caterer for 5 years. The only time we have a tasting now is when a new dish has been suggested by the caterer. But, when we began our HR person & I took care of the tasting and did so after work hours. Still on site, but after staff went home. In our case, if we had included employees, we'd still be in the deciding stage and never please everyone. Sometimes too many opinions derail progress.

                          If it's not too late, I'd rethink the tasting or be very clear with staff/coworkers what is actually the intent of the tasting. Folks who insist on certain items can always volunteer to bake/cook/bring a dish!

                          btw-we have never paid for a tasting under these circumstances with the exception (interestingly enough) our coffee service who was interested in selling us flavored brews but asked us to buy a sampler upfront. Fairly quickly, we didn't see enough benefit to offering anything more than caf/de-caf.

                          Good luck!

                          1. as someone once in your shoes, 12 does seem a bit excessive for a freebie - you called it right, a few servings that's fine, otherwise if you get serious blow back and just want to smooth feathers, have any future few lunches carved up into 12 little servings and schedule it after lunch, mid-afternoon, although I highly discourage this.

                            some office caterers we used, usu. also did reasonable box lunches or light buffets (which we paid for) at a few higher budget/echelon bi-monthly office meetings and it was a way for us to satisfy the execs, and simultaneously figure out which ones could do something good but simple at a relatively low price point and which ones were sloppy, who screwed up orders on a regular basis, who was reliable. sometimes they knew it might lead to something later, sometimes not. either way they were paid, the committee didn't know it was in effect an "audition", therefore kept their (usu.) idiotic comments to themselves and all we had to do was observe what was served vs. what didn't get eaten and ask a few discreet questions and extrapolate from there (ok so this place can do killer roast chicken panini for 20 with a day's notice - prob. can handle a roast chicken entree for 100 with a few weeks notice, that salad for 15 looked wilty, hmm. etc.) I always preferred to let the caterer know we were always looking to expand our pool of choices and even if it stayed with just the occasional lunch, I avoided the predictable whine of "them, again?, we always order from them" uh gee you raved about them last time.

                            Even if any given caterer didn't have the capacity to handle that number or wasn't of quite the quality we'd want, it at least clued us in to what sort of food would please the majority (never, ever unanimous, if you shoot for that be prepared to spend a lot of money on the new fillings you'll need after the sleepless nights you spend grinding your teeth).

                            so yeah if the office orders in for meetings anyway - use that as part of your research, don't let most of your co-workers know what's really going on and pay the poor vendors their due.

                            1. Thanks for the feedback everyone... I'm just so irritated with the drama! Just to be clear, I have *never* asked for a tasting- it was just this one company that offered one. And I've always been up front with our budgetary concerns. The committee cannot help the budget- we're only given so much money.