Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A duel with teensy-weensy swords

Hi, my name is Peter, and I’m a sample-holic.

(This is where you yell back, “HI, PETER!”)

I never thought I’d end up this way. One day a matron in a hairnet is spraying cheese on Triscuits and offering a taste in the dairy aisle. The next thing I know, I’m cut off at Costco’s perogi and turkey-sausage stations. The kid at the deli won’t even listen to my plaintive, “Is the bologna better than the ham? Could I try a slice of each?”

But there’s no shortage of freebies to be had. Supermarkets will probably be setting up carving stations soon, or allowing you to order samples ahead of time by fax. And we’re practically being pelted with free menu items—the whole damned things—by the big fast-food chains.

Which is why I’m speaking out to you casual dining specialists, before it’s too late. Get yourself a box of those toothpicks that look like little swords and start cubing your sliders, $9.95 sirloins and other center-of-the-plate additions.

It’s no secret that other food channels are eating your lunch. Supermarkets and the quick-service horde are both offering meal choices close to your league in quality—if not squarely in it. The way they whet an interest is by sampling, a concept you’ve virtually left alone because you're not willing to swallow the bump in food costs as a marketing investment.

Meanwhile, you’re adding items with cutesy names and suspect heritage, like Cheeseburger Pizzas or Mediterranean Egg Rolls . They sound like something you’d find on a c-store rack next to the Ho-Ho’s, Sour Cream & Maple Waffle Chips, and Hawaiian Pork Rinds. In short, abominations that were invented by chemists and processors, not discovered on the tables of some mountain town that had passed down the dish through umpteenth generations. They sound contrived, fake and definitely lacking in integrity. And that perceived artificiality of your menu is a big part of the problem.

Your hope is winning patrons with the taste of what you’re developing. The way to do that is with sampling.

I know firsthand that it’s an effective sales technique. When my wife sees 10 or 15 samples of the same item stacked in my shopping cart, she’ll often buy the product without trying it herself.

But I’m not sure if she sees me as a one-man focus group, or if she’s motivated by pure guilt.

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