HOW TO PREPARE FOR A MENU TASTING

Tips for selecting the perfect wedding menu

Top Row, L-R: Bacon Wrapped Shrimp, Brie & Strawberries on Toast, Seasonal fruit Skewer, Spanakopita; middle Row, L-R: Fig & Goat Cheese on Toast, Bruschetta, Chipotle Churrasco Steak Skewer; Bottom Row, L-R: Asparagus Asiago Roll, Kale Pot Sticker, Thai Shrimp & coconut Spring Roll; PC,  Taming of the Spoon

Top Row, L-R: Bacon Wrapped Shrimp, Brie & Strawberries on Toast, Seasonal fruit Skewer, Spanakopita; middle Row, L-R: Fig & Goat Cheese on Toast, Bruschetta, Chipotle Churrasco Steak Skewer; Bottom Row, L-R: Asparagus Asiago Roll, Kale Pot Sticker, Thai Shrimp & coconut Spring Roll; PC, Taming of the Spoon

One of the perks of being a wedding planner is having the opportunity to sample some of the most delicious cuisine in existence! I love experiencing the latest flavor trends as well as admiring the fresh, unique presentations of old favorites. Houston is fortunate enough to have some of the most talented chefs in the country who are able to provide a wide variety of dishes ranging from classic Americana to international fusion foods. Luckily, local couples are able to choose from hundreds of in-house catering venues or independent catering companies to provide them with the exact flavors that they are looking for.

While most couples will select their reception venue primarily based on pricing, aesthetics, and location, food quality is a close fourth in terms of importance. And with so many options available, how can couples decide? If your heart isn’t set on a particular venue, start by taking a commitment-free food tour!

The Commitment-Free Food Tour

During a food tour, couples will dine at multiple venues at their own expense. These visits are scheduled before they have committed to a signed contract with a venue and/or catering company. Food touring is a great way to test drive the catering prowess of a business before you’re locked into a contract. It is also a efficient way to eliminate venues and caterers that just don’t meet your standards.

IN-HOUSE CATERING VENUES

In-house catering venues are reception sites with fully equipped kitchen facilities—and the supporting staff and proper licensing requirements needed to operate as such. Venues within this category may include members-only/country clubs, resorts, hotels, restaurants, etc.

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When setting up food tours with in-house catering venues, search for opportunities to sample a venue’s food quality during their regular restaurant hours. Although these dining options may vary slightly from the offerings on their banquet/catering menu, it may still give you a good idea of what you should expect for your event.

Please note that while you will have to pay for your own meals, this is a small expense when considering the huge financial investment that you will be making once you actually decide to book a venue.

INDEPENDENT CATERING COMPANIES

In the event that the venue you’ve selected does not have in-house catering services, you will be required to hire your own independent catering contractor. Food touring is a little less common with catering companies, because there are typically fewer opportunities in which you can buy their food; however, you may be able to purchase their cuisine at festivals and/or through affiliated food trucks.

While many caterers are incredibly generous and will offer free samples of their food without a commitment to their services, I strongly advise that you please be considerate of the time and expense required on their behalf. It is considered to be in extremely poor taste to request samples from a caterer that you either (1) are unsure if they meet your venue’s policies, (2) are outside of your budget, or (3) generally have no intention of hiring. If you know that the potential caterer meets your venue’s insurance, licensing, and food safety certifications, is within your budget, is an actual contender, and you are not a window shopper, by all means schedule a consultation to sample their food.

Please note that catering companies will formally consider you a committed, potential client once you schedule a consultation and will act accordingly to earn your business. This may include repeated emails and phone calls. So, if you are not at a point in your planning where you would be open to this type of interaction then do not schedule a formal consultation just yet.

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You can still try out the caterer’s food in a less committed setting via public food festivals, open houses, and/or bridal shows. Feel free to ask caterers for future exhibition dates and times on their schedules. Caterers at these types of showcases expect to lure in new customers by providing free samples to couples who are on the fence, however, their overall goal is to still book clients.

Understanding Your Menu Needs

Before scheduling any sort of in-person meeting with a venue or catering company, there are four basic details that you should have handy before initiating any type of communication. Knowing your Budget, Guest Count, Tentative Wedding Date, and Dietary Restrictions very early on will help you to effectively communicate with prospective vendors and make the entire booking process a lot less difficult to navigate.

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1| Budget(s)

No matter how beautiful a venue is or how delicious their food is, you should be stopped in your tracks if the cost is well over your budget. Although you may be in the very early stages of your planning and may not know exactly what your budget is, I strongly suggest that you crunch some numbers with your wedding planner in advance to avoid future heartache and financial ruin.

There are actually three budgets that should be considered when reaching out to venues and caterers: overall budget, reception budget, and most importantly your food and beverage budget. Your reception budget is typically 50% of your overall wedding budget. However, all of your reception budget is not completely dedicated to catering. Your reception budget will also include decor items, linen rentals, the DJ/band, cakes, etc. Furthermore, the food and beverage budget will also include additional expenses such as service fees, taxes, room rentals, server and security fees, etc.

2| Tentative Guest Count

While your final guest list may not be completed, you should begin developing a preliminary list that will give you a range to work within and communicate to the venue or caterer. Additionally, guest counts will often eliminate prospective venues based on seating capacities and/or service minimums required to serve a particular cuisine.

Your tentative guest count is also vital to a common catering practice called Food and Beverage Minimums. Food and Beverage Minimums are the minimum amount that a couple must spend (pre-tax/pre-service fees) per contract. Although you may be pleasantly surprised by a seemingly low Food and Beverage Minimum, please note that the combination of your guest count and food pricing may automatically put you well over the minimum and well over your budget. Additionally, if you have a lower guest count and a high Food and Beverage Minimum, you may never reach this magic number---this means that you may be charged for items that you will not receive. Please keep in mind that guest lists are sure to see several revisions throughout the planning process, but you should always know what your limitations are before you begin spending.

3| Tentative Wedding Date(s)

Although you may not have a wedding date finalized, you should be able to provide prospective vendors with a list of up to five potential wedding dates that are at least 6-12 months into the future. Your flexibility to adjust your wedding date to the availability of your favorite venues and/or caterers will definitely determine which vendors make the final cut.  

4| Dietary Restrictions

If you and your fiance/fiancee and/or a substantial number of guests require specialty meals such as vegan or vegetarian, kosher, halal, and/or gluten-free foods, please communicate this to the venue or caterer as soon as possible. They should also be aware of any possible guests with severe allergies (such as nuts, shellfish, etc.) so that you can discuss any food safety procedures with them in advance.

common food sensitivity considerations (strawberries, shellfish, gluten, etc.), PC  Taming of the Spoon

common food sensitivity considerations (strawberries, shellfish, gluten, etc.), PC Taming of the Spoon

You’ve begun the interviewing process and your short list of preferred venues and/or caterers should be very clear. You’ve run all the numbers, read through the contract restrictions and provisions, and now you should be ready to book. Your booking will consist of a signed contract/agreement and a deposit payment. With these two items, you are officially on your venue and/or independent caterer’s schedule for your wedding date.

So what’s next? It is now time to officially prepare for your menu tasting.


What is a menu tasting?

A menu or food tasting is a collection of several dishes (typically in smaller portions) presented to clients for the purpose of selecting their final food choices for their event. A menu tasting is different from a food tour. Menu tastings are typically complimentary to clients who already have a signed contracted with the venue and/or catering company. The menu tasting only includes a limited portion of a chef’s entire catering/banquet menu, based on a pre-specified number of items of interest as indicated by the client.

WHAT TO EXPECT

A menu tasting typically occurs at the venue (for in-house catering venues) or often at the test kitchen or banquet room for a catering company, rather than in their business offices. Here are a list of things to consider and ask the Catering Manager of your venue/catering company when preparing for your food tasting:

1| Attendance limits

Determine how many guests you can bring. Menu tastings are often limited to a specific number of guests, typically 2-4 guests.

2| Date and time restrictions

Ask what days and times are reserved for menu tastings. Most venues have limitations on when you can schedule a tasting. Food tastings often occur during regular business hours on specific weekdays, usually during lunch hours. Reservations are required.

Also, remember to leave enough time to get through the entire tasting. In the past, most of the menu tastings that I’ve attended have run about 2-3 hours. You may be sampling multiple dishes for your cocktail hour and dinner reception that will include several hors d’oeuvres, entrees, soups, salads, sides, starches, and veggies. You need as much time as possible to not only sample the pre-set options but to also adjust sauce preferences, swap out starches and veggies, etc. to get exactly what you want.

3| Abbreviated menu

Catering or banquet menus often change seasonally. While some catering/banquet menus may be available online, you may have to request a current banquet menu directly from the venue or catering company.

Please note that the full catering menu will not be available to sample during a menu tasting. Once you have looked over the catering menu(s), you should ask the appropriate sales and catering staffer how many items you will be able to taste during the menu tasting. You should be given a specific number of choices for each of your meal groupings such as 6 hors d’oeuvres, 4 salads, 3 proteins for entrees, 3 sides, 2 veggies, etc.

Typically, display items like fruit, vegetable, and charcuterie trays as well as alcoholic beverages may not be available to sample for tastings.

4| Dress code

As some venues enforce dress codes for their regular patrons and/or members, you should also dress appropriately.

5| The drafting of your BEO

A Banquet Event Order (BEO) is a detailed list of instructions for your event. Venues often use BEOs to not only specify menu selections for food and alcoholic beverages, but food service times, table and chair placement instructions, room rental designations, billing info, etc. Traditionally, final approval of the BEO with payment may be requested by a venue 14-30 days prior to an event. Additionally, a final guarantee number is the final number of guests that you will be billed for regardless of a decrease in the actual attendance. Final guarantee numbers are typically due approximately 3-5 days prior to the event date.

In response to BEO billing dates, I am often asked, “How can a payment be requested before I know how many guests will be in attendance?”

While I recommend that guest RSVPs be due at least 5-6 weeks before the event, you may not have definitive grasp of your guest demographics before the BEO and payment are due. The reasons are (1) guests may reply late or not at all and (2) guest responses may not be clear, ie. handwriting issues, no indication of food preferences, and/or you cannot determine the number of adults vs. children attending. All of these items require callbacks, which may take days or even weeks to clear up.

Unfortunately, your venue or caterer cannot afford to wait beyond their BEO deadline to begin preparing for your event. Chefs, bartenders, and additional staffers must order food and miscellaneous ingredients from suppliers and plan ahead to ensure the best possible service for your event. With this in mind, your BEO in many cases may be your best estimate instead of an exact count. Once your venue or caterer is aware of what they are expected to provide, they can make minor adjustments to the number of guests up to the time that the final guarantee number is due- typically 3-5 days before the event. Please be aware that BEO guest counts and final guarantee numbers can be increased (within a certain percentage), but typically can never be decreased once you indicate your count. So be very careful when providing your venue or caterer with a guest count to avoid waste.

The best ways to combat the problem of having huge discrepancies between BEO guest counts, final guarantee numbers, and actual guest attendance are to (1) maintain an accurate, up-to-date guest list, (2) carefully construct the wording of your RSVP cards to be as clear as possible so that your wedding guests know exactly what information you need with their response, (3) count your RSVP responses frequently, and (4) be conservative when providing BEO guest counts. Additionally, never count undecided guests until you have received a confirmed “yes” either verbally, via email, or with a returned RSVP card.

GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS

To recap, preparation is key to ensuring a successful menu tasting. Arriving with the four bits of information outlined in the Understanding Your Needs section above is the first step. If you have scheduled a menu tasting and do not know your (1) Budget, (2) Tentative Guest Count, (3) Tentative Wedding Date(s), and (4) Dietary Restrictions, STOP NOW AND RESCHEDULE YOUR MENU TASTING FOR A LATER DATE!

You should never walk into a food tasting unprepared. Upon arrival, it is assumed that you are in a position to make many semi-permanent decisions that will be executed on your wedding day. If multiple corrections need to be made to your original choices, a follow-up menu tasting may be required at your expense.

Ask the Experts

The Petroleum Club of Houston (PCOH) is one of my favorite wedding reception venues. Since 2008, I have had the pleasure of coordinating multiple events at PCOH’s original location on Bell Street and more recently at the beautiful new space on Louisiana Street in Downtown Houston. My clients especially enjoy the high-rise panoramic city views and the delicious food and beverage options. From a planner’s perspective, their staff and customer service are second to none, which always makes my job so much easier!

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I’ve enlisted the help of the PCOH Director of Catering, Shawn Rushing and Stacy Perez, Catering Manager,  to answer a few questions about menu tastings. Shawn and Stacey have been with the Petroleum Club since 2013 and 2015, respectively. Both have been in the event planning and hospitality industry for over a decade.

I thought that PCOH would be a perfect fit for this blog post as I’ve always found their process of creating client BEOs so incredibly straightforward and uncomplicated for myself and my clients to follow. Additionally, Stacey and Shawn are more than qualified to answer our menu tasting questions as they can host at an average of 34 wedding menu tastings over the course of a year.

COCKTAIL HOUR

Q: For the cocktail hour, do most clients prefer display stations, passed hors d’oeuvres, or a combination of both? Why?

A: Most clients prefer passed hors d’oeuvres for the cocktail hour because it allows guests to mingle freely as items are brought to them as they enjoy the event instead of guests having to wait in a line at a display station.

Q: What is the preferred amount of time for a guest cocktail hour?

A: A traditional cocktail hour typically last about 45-60 minutes.

Q: What are your recommendations for hot and cold food varieties for the cocktail hour? How many different cold options vs. hot food options would you recommend for an hour long cocktail hour? Would there be any adjustments for a cocktail hour lasting 1.5-2 hours?

A: For a typical 45-60 minute cocktail hour, we recommend 3-4 different food items with at least 1 selection being a cold food item. If the cocktail hour extends to an hour and a half to two hours, we would then recommend 4-6 different food items including at least 2 cold food options.

Q:  How many individual hors d’oeuvre pieces do you recommend per guest for an hour-long cocktail hour?

A:  We recommend 6 pieces per guest for a 60-minute cocktail hour.

RECEPTION

Q: What are the maximum number of courses that the Petroleum Club can provide guests during a plated/seated dinner reception? How many courses do you recommend?

A: We are open to providing as many courses as requested by our clients, however we normally do not exceed 6 courses. For a typical event, we recommend approximately 3-4 courses.

Herb crusted Filet of Beef and Grilled Shrimp Entree, PC  Taming of the Spoon

Herb crusted Filet of Beef and Grilled Shrimp Entree, PC Taming of the Spoon

Q: What are the estimated service times for a plated dinner vs. a dinner buffet for approximately 150 guests?

A: For a dinner buffet or a 3-course plated dinner for 150 guests, the estimated service time is approximately 1 hour.

Q: How many food items do you recommend for a dinner buffet (including the number of meats, sides, starches, etc.)?

A: We recommend 2 salads, 3 entrees (which would also include carving stations), 2 side vegetables, and 1 side starch.

Q: What is a palate cleanser and between what courses are they commonly served? What flavors do you have available?

A: Palate cleansers are refreshing breaks in between courses. A palate cleanser or the intermezzo course is usually served right before the main entree. At PCOH, we offer Citrus, Champagne, Pina Colada, Raspberry, and Lemon sorbet palate cleansers.

Raspberry Sorbet, PC  Taming of the Spoon

Raspberry Sorbet, PC Taming of the Spoon

Q: Do you offer vegetarian and/or vegan meal options for plated dinners? What types of items are available?

A: Yes, we offer vegetarian and vegan meal options. Our current plated dinner options include Vegetable Stuffed Ravioli, a (Vegetable Stuffed) Poblano Pepper, and the Portobello Mushroom Tower. We are also able to accommodate other special dietary restrictions upon request.

Q: What protein options do you make available to vegan or vegetarian guests for a dinner buffet?

A: Although some customized options may be made available upon request, some vegan or vegetarian options for a dinner buffet include:

  • Vegetarian Lasagna with Tofu

  • (Vegetable Stuffed) Poblano Pepper

  • Vegetable Stuffed Ravioli with Marinara Sauce and Sauteed Spinach

  • Portobello Mushroom Tower with Seasonal Vegetables and Marinara Sauce

  • Vegetable and Goat Cheese Crepes

Q: Do you offer kids’ meal options?

A: Yes, we typically offer chicken tenders, mac and cheese, house fries, and a fruit cup to our young guests.

Q: If a client would like to provide meals for their reception vendors, what options are available?

A: We offer two types of vendor meal options for clients to choose from. Our cold meal option is a club sandwich with fresh fruit and french fries. The warm meal option is a chicken du Chef entree served with a side salad.

Club Sandwich Vendor Meal, PC  Taming of the Spoon

Club Sandwich Vendor Meal, PC Taming of the Spoon

Q: If a couple decides against outside vendor wedding cakes, what other dessert options are available?

A: Our pastry department is able to create a variety of assorted desserts. Special dessert requests include Cinnamon Sugar Donut Holes, Individual Pies, and Cookie Bars.


ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES

Q: Can signature drinks and/or wines be sampled at menu tastings?

A: Yes, signature drinks and wines can be sampled at menu tastings. However, fees may apply depending on the items that are being sampled. We are also very excited about having our own in-house mixologist Jeremy Young who can help couples create the perfect signature drink for their event.

l-r: sALTY dOG, rOSE MARTINI, AND bLACKBERRY lEMON gIN & tONIC, pc  tAMING OF THE sPOON

l-r: sALTY dOG, rOSE MARTINI, AND bLACKBERRY lEMON gIN & tONIC, pc tAMING OF THE sPOON

Q: What alcoholic beverage options do you recommend during the cocktail hour? For the dinner reception?

A: For both the cocktail hour and dinner reception, we recommend having an open bar with beer, wine, and liquor. We also recommend passing wine during the cocktail hour and offering wine service at guest tables with dinner.


GENERAL QUESTIONS

Q: How far in advance do you recommend that couples schedule a menu tasting?

A: We recommend that our clients schedule a tasting approximately 8-10 weeks prior to the wedding/event date.

Q: How many hours do you typically reserve for a menu tasting?

A: Approximately an hour and a half.

Q: Based on your menu, what is the difference between an hors d’oeuvre and a starter?

A: Based on our menu, hors d’oeuvres are typically bite size items that are served during the cocktail hour. Starters are slightly larger items and are considered the first course when served with dinner.

sHRIMP cOCKTAIL sTARTER, pc  tAMING OF THE sPOON

sHRIMP cOCKTAIL sTARTER, pc tAMING OF THE sPOON

Q: Can new food items be added to the existing catering menu by request? If so, how much notice is needed to accommodate such requests?

A: Absolutely, we welcome the opportunity to create customized menus to suit our clients’ taste. We typically need at least 30 days notice to accommodate such requests.

Q: Is outside catering allowed for certain ethnic foods? If not, is your chef able to create ethnic dishes? What would be the additional expense to add on items to the existing menu?

A: Outside catering is not permitted at PCOH; however, our chefs have extensive experience in creating culturally diverse dishes. Pricing for these dishes would vary depending on the selected food items.

Q: Are you able to provide halal or kosher meals? If so, can they be sampled at a menu tasting?

A: While we are able to provide halal meals (that can also be sampled at a menu tasting), unfortunately we are not able to provide kosher meals.

Q: Are couples able to customize hors d’oeuvre, entree, vegetable, and starch options to taste/preference, e.g. sauces, presentation, etc.?

A: Yes, couples are able to customize menu items to their taste/preferences to create perfect meals that are sure to impress their wedding guests.

Q: Do you allow clients to take photos of menu items during the tasting?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you have any specific recommendations for couples preparing for their menu tasting? Are there any actions on their parts that are especially helpful to you and your staff?

A: When selecting items for your menu tasting, we ask that our clients be as pragmatic as possible when deciding which dishes you’d like to taste.

While we recommend that couples choose a set number of items to taste from each section, we do not suggest that they taste every item from each section. Limiting the number of tasting item choices makes it easier for couples to narrow down their final meal selections.

Lastly, keep your budget in mind when preparing for your menu tasting so that you do not unconsciously select menu items at the tasting that exceed your predetermined food and beverage pricing limits.

Q: Once a couple has booked an event and attended a menu tasting, what are the next steps?

A: The next step would be for our clients to receive a Banquet Event Order (BEO) with the selected menu items from the tasting along with final details for the event.

Final Thoughts

Wow, I’m sure this was a lot of information to digest! There is definitely more to a menu tasting than showing up with an empty stomach.

Food tastings are one of the highlights of the entire wedding planning process, but as you may already know, every great wedding task always requires a bit of work. At the same time, couples should not be overwhelmed with organizing themselves for a menu tasting. With the right wedding planner, these items are carefully coordinated well in advance and offer no additional stress to the overall wedding planning experience for the bride and groom.

At Aisle Runners, we have perfected the menu tasting process. For example, we have engineered a series of real-time budget calculators that immediately notify our brides and grooms when they have hit their budget limitations- while they are still sitting at the table, during the menu tasting! Additionally, we are always right by your side with our “menu tasting toolkit” to make sure that your special day is filled with all of the delicious delights that you crave at a price that you can readily digest. We truly make menu tastings appetizingly easy!