By DeAnn Owens
Photographs By Josh Keown

Giving your product away for free to build sales may seem like a business oxymoron. But as the old saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. And although there is no such thing as a free lunch, food sampling is the next best thing for operators and for customers.

For operators, it gets their product into the mouths of current and potential customers, and for customers, it gives them an opportunity to try something new, risk-free. In that exchange, operators and customers can connect while breaking bread. And, seriously, who doesn’t love a free sample?

“Food sampling is the cheapest, most effective way to get consumers to try what I’m trying to get them to try and build a relationship. Food sampling is the idiot-proof marketing tool for bars and restaurants,” says Howard Cannon, a food service expert with Restaurant Expert Witness.

Jeff Van Dyke, managing partner of Brixx Wood Fired Pizza with locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, says food sampling is a valuable tool because it establishes goodwill with guests, provides an opportunity for customer feedback for market research and requires minimal cost.

“We use sampling for two different reasons: one, to develop new menu items and get feedback — very effective before you go too far with a new item –– and two, we sample foods with people waiting for tables as a way to thank them for waiting and being patient,” Van Dyke says.

A recent addition to Brixx’s menu, Zucchini Balsamic Toast, was a heavily sampled dish.

“It’s a good item and a little different, so people are afraid to try it,” Van Dyke says. “The advantage of sampling is that it stirs people toward items you want to sell. The Zucchini Balsamic Toast is a healthy item, and we want it to be one of the most popular items on the menu.”

Food sampling also is an effective way to change customer habits, says Robert Ancill, CEO and managing partner of the restaurant and leisure consulting group The Next Idea.

“Typically customers are habitual. There is a small percentage who will try something new on a menu,” Ancill says. “The goal of sampling is for the customer to try something new they normally wouldn’t.”

The rules of food sampling are flexible: the where and when can fluctuate according to the operator’s needs and staff’s availability.

Van Dyke says, food sampling varies by Brixx location, but is definitely used when a new menu is in the works, which is twice a year. He says food sampling is also great when stores are not busy, and managers can get immediate feedback from customers.

“We are big into food sampling; we do it in all of our stores. We sample products in front of our stores, at local farmers’ markets, big school events, wine and food festivals — anywhere we can get an audience of our community to sample our product,” says Adam Goldberg, founder of Fresh Brothers in California. “We hold sampling events at our stores. We do it with a new product and with gluten-free products. We believe in the quality of our pizza so much, that we would rather give it away for people to try it instead of giving away a coupon.”

Cannon recommends his clients do a “business blitz,” which is food sampling offsite; before lunch, staff should bring samples to a business that is within range of the restaurant.

“It all works — dining room, offsite, front door,” Cannon says.

Although the where and when of food sampling differs, its success depends on how it is done.

“If the food is good, let the food sell itself,” Cannon says. “If the food is miserable, don’t do sampling. Operators want to sample things that didn’t sell, but don’t do that. Put your best stuff forward with the best hospitality to customers.”

Food sampling also is a way to grab customers’ attention.

“It’s a chance to impress them with something they wouldn’t normally buy. When customers say no to dessert and pay out the check, bring two samples of dessert to entice them next time,” Cannon says.

Bite-size food samples mean small cost to operators. “Food sampling is never a full portion; for example, sampling a dessert, make two-three extra pies or cakes and use that for the whole shift,” Cannon says. “Bulk offering into portion-controlled options to keep food cost low.”

Food sampling can be a cost-effective sidekick to the big budget demands of couponing and advertising.

“We spend $10,000 a month throughout our chain; we really believe in food sampling our food to potential new customers,” Goldberg says. “It promotes the quality of our product vs. couponing that can hurt the integrity of our brand. We would rather give it away instead of discounting it with a coupon. Couponing is not part of our brand; it doesn’t work for us. By giving it away, we have a 99-percent success rate of people trying our food.”

Van Dyke agrees that these little portions are worth the investment. “You can give a lot of food samples away for less money than you’d spend on advertising, and it is money well spent,” Van Dyke says.

Although the cost is minimal, location will affect the bottom line.

“Offsite is very effective, but it has to be done right,” Ancill says. “Pizza has to be served hot, packaged right. It’s a bigger investment because you have to think about all those details. It’s a lower cost when the customer is right there. The labor cost will stay the same unless you’re hiring someone solely to hand out samples.”

When tracking the success of food sampling, operators have to go with their instincts.“There’s no hard evidence that shows a person is buying because of sampling like there is with a coupon,” Ancill says. According to Cannon, since independent and small chain restaurants are so relationship-based, they can help track the success of food sampling by smiles.

DeAnn Owens is a freelance journalist living in Dayton, Ohio. She specializes in features and human interest stories.

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