This guest post comes to us from Matt Phelan. Matt is President and Co-Owner of Simply Fresh Events in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
In my last post, I told you about my many years working in outdoor events. You can read it here, but here’s a brief recap: I first started working in outdoor catering during the summers when I was 14 and I haven’t looked back since. After college, I went back to the same outdoor caterer I worked for as a teen and spent 20 years there. After a brief hiatus from the industry, I started Simply Fresh Events with my wife and partners Geoff and Jocelyn Barker in 2015.
Since then, we’ve grown the business from 150 events that first year to over 250 in 2018, and are on pace to grow even more this year. In this post, I’m going to tell you about our approach. I’ll start with a high-level overview of how our sales process has progressed over time, then give you a step-by-step breakdown of what it looks like today. Weddings were some of the first events we booked and remain our biggest source of revenue, so I’ll focus there but touch on corporate events too. Enjoy!
From 0 to 250: What got us this far
Local venues were our biggest source of wedding leads when we first started Simply Fresh, and still are today. My partner Geoff already had relationships with many of them, which he was able to leverage to get us onto the list of local caterers they gave to couples planning their weddings.
Placement on those lists and the history of glowing reviews from couples who loved working with Jocelyn got couples to reach out to us, but as a brand new business, we had to be scrappy to actually turn them into clients. We didn’t even have our own kitchen and we held most of our tastings in the clients’ homes. Our food was solid — as our name implies, we use fresh ingredients to craft simple but delicious meals — but it was not necessarily a differentiator. So, how did we get couples to trust us with their food on the most important day of their lives? It came down to three key strategies:
- We made ourselves very competitive on price.
- After tastings, we followed up with every client to find out what they liked and didn’t like and sent them a modified proposal based on their feedback.
- We looked for other ways to add value in the wedding planning process. Need some help with the linens? The hotel blocks? We were ready to provide it thanks to Jocelyn’s extensive experience with wedding decor and planning.
Bottom line: Going above and beyond was the reason we landed the 20 weddings we did our first year in business, and remains instrumental to our success today.
Years 2 and 3
By this point, we had our very own full-sized commercial kitchen, so we were able to make a wider array of dishes and host couples at our headquarters for tastings. Those two factors definitely helped our conversion rates.
Our willingness to help out with other aspects of the wedding continued to win us clients, except now, we could charge for it. We formalized that service into a wedding coordinator add-on that remains one of our most popular offerings. Charging for wedding coordinator services obviously made our business more profitable, but from the client’s perspective, it was still a great deal — much cheaper than hiring a full blown wedding planner — so it was a huge differentiator for us.
We also started taking on non-wedding opportunities around this time. For instance, you may recall that the Pope visited D.C. in 2015 and celebrated mass at Catholic University. Did we land any business at that event? No. But in the course of inquiring, we established a relationship with the production company building the stages for that Celebration and reached an agreement to supply their team with boxed lunches and gatorade as they worked. Following an event lead landed us a great corporate client!
Finally, we really began investing more in our brand in the second and third year. We decided on colors and a logo, got corresponding uniforms for all our staff, and decaled our delivery truck for around $2,000. We grappled with whether or not the decal was a worthwhile purchase. But sure enough, we booked a wedding from somebody seeing our truck literally as we were driving it back from getting the decal put on — a fast ROI if I do say so myself! Since then, we’ve upgraded to even more distinctive 16-foot trucks decked out with Simply Fresh branding.
Starting around 2018, we’ve made a point of posting more on Facebook and Instagram — the latter especially is great for food businesses. We’re in the midst of redesigning our website as well. Our current site is about four years old and while it gets the job done, we know that the presentation could better reflect who we are as a company now and help clients get a better feel for us at first contact.
However, the most important way we’ve leveraged technology is online reviews. We have a set process for following up with clients and asking for a review on WeddingWire or Facebook once an event is complete. By inviting clients in a simple and direct way, we are able to head off the occasional concerns that come up immediately, and at the same time capture lots of helpful feedback and accolades that help build our future client base.
Our event sales process from lead to close
Our sales strategy has consistently evolved from the beginnings of our business up until now. Below, I’m going to break down in depth what the entire process looks like today. Again, we’ll focus on weddings, but I’ll also cover the big differences for corporate event sales as well.
Venues are still our top source of leads, even more so as we’ve built up our reputation — some venues have come to know our team and the quality of events we consistently produce, which helps keep the leads flowing. After all, happy clients are good for venues too, and respecting the space and the venue staff goes a long way to building a strong working relationship.
If you’re a new caterer looking to drum up wedding business, I can’t stress enough how invaluable it is to build relationships with venues. Think about it from the couple’s perspective. Just about everyone chooses their venue before they even think about the caterer, so the venue is in prime position to steer couples toward the caterers they like working with the most.
After venues, word of mouth from couples we’ve worked with is our second biggest source of leads, followed by WeddingWire and other review sites.
Opening meeting to proposal
Once somebody reaches out to inquire about catering for their wedding, our first goal is to schedule an initial screening call and then get them a proposal within 48 hours. We’ve found that being immediately accessible and responsive lets the client know what to expect from us up front and improves our chances of landing the deal.
What goes into a good questionnaire? Personalization. Either before or directly after that screening call, we send couples a Google Form asking about their food preferences. It’s crucial to note here that we do not ask them about specific menu items they want, but instead focus on their general likes and dislikes. Why? Because that way, once the conversation advances and we have their budget, we can build a menu the couple will like that works for their price point. For instance, let’s say a couple likes lobster but it’s out of their budget. While we may not be able to give them surf and turf, we can get lobster mac and cheese on the menu.
Once we’ve had a call and gotten their food preferences, we send each couple a proposal with a menu and a price. We’re competitive on price to the point that couples will call us back wanting to know where the hidden fees are. This gives us the opportunity to share that we are as open and transparent on our proposals as possible — nothing tricky here.
Roughly 40% of clients want to keep talking once we send them a proposal. So at that point, the next step is to invite the couple to the office for a tasting. One or both sets of parents will usually tag along as well.
What does a Simply Fresh tasting look like? For starters, we don’t charge for tastings. While charging is a fairly standard practice in the industry, we have found that our conversion rates post-tasting are strong enough that they pay for themselves.
Once the couple and their families arrive, we take them to our dining room and serve them each item on the proposal menu, plus one or two upsell items. We’ll sit with them for a bit and check in occasionally to answer questions, but mostly we try to leave them alone and let them discuss the food candidly amongst themselves. We also give them copies of the menu and pens so they can take notes on what they like and don’t like.
After everyone’s done eating, we answer any remaining questions they have, get feedback on what they liked and didn’t like, and send them on their way with leftovers.
Post-tasting and close
After the couple leaves, we take just a few moments to write up notes on which items they liked and didn’t like. If we need to, we’ll send an updated proposal as soon as possible with new options to replace anything they didn’t care for. We also send the post-tasting notes to our sales team so they can keep track of the trends and improve our menus over time.
The next day, someone from our sales team will follow up by phone to see if any new questions have arisen. When the sales team doesn’t know the answer to something, they’ll connect the couple with the chef or wedding coordinator who does. We’ve recently improved our follow-up process by signing up for a service called ZipWhip, which lets couples text with our sales team. It’s an easier communication channel for small questions a prospect might otherwise put off asking. Crucially, it means they can talk to our team while they’re at work, which is a huge help. We’ve found it usually takes 6-8 touches to close a wedding deal, and texting allows us to fit more touches in via a format that is comfortable and familiar.
Ideally, the couple will give us a yes or a no and make a deposit on one of these follow-up calls. Close time varies widely — some take as little as two weeks total, while others take as long as six months. It depends on how far out the wedding is. I’ve noticed recently that more couples are booking their wedding venues — and therefore talking to us — further in advance of the wedding date, which has slightly extended our average close time.
What about corporate events?
We cater plenty of non-wedding social events too, but the sales process is so similar that rehashing it would be redundant. Corporate events, on the other hand, bring some key differences.
First off, the lead sources are much different. Corporate clients are more likely to be thinking about the food before the venue (or may not even be renting a venue in the case of office parties and the like), so a higher percentage of those leads will come from simple word of mouth. We also cold call for corporate work, usually finding lead lists by scouring the local business journals.
The discovery process for corporate clients also tends to be more involved, stemming from the fact that they often don’t have a venue picked out yet. We see this as an opportunity for us to flex our expertise. We know the outdoor venues and parks really well, so we can add value by making informed suggestions on what’s best for the event they want to hold.
Planning for corporate events is often a committee-based process, unlike with weddings where it’s usually just the couple deciding everything. The sales process can get cumbersome in those cases where there isn’t a clear leader driving the decision-making process for the prospect. This is an opportunity to communicate well with the whole team, and demonstrate our corporate fluency. Even the folks who aren’t the lead for a particular event may be spearheading the plans for other events within the organization, and working respectfully with the entire team opens the door to be included for consideration when the time comes. Ideally, the event is a recurring one, a holiday party, for example, giving us a great opportunity to land a repeat customer and develop a deeper relationship with the whole organization.
Finally, corporate sales tend to close a lot faster than weddings — the average is about three weeks. Planning a holiday party or end of quarter celebration is less emotionally charged than planning a wedding, so there are fewer questions to answer. While they aren’t always necessary, tastings can be a great chance to make a positive impression on the whole office. A group of servers in full uniform passing around delectable bites for everyone to sample tends to be very memorable — it can really move a deal in our favor.
Process makes perfect
I wouldn’t advise any caterers reading this to try and duplicate our exact sales process — what works for us may not work for you. But the important thing is that you be deliberate about testing new strategies, measuring how well they perform in moving prospects closer to signing, and double down on what works. That’s how we arrived at a process that works for us at Simply Fresh, and we look forward to continuing to improve our process in 2019 and beyond.