Soft lighting accentuates lush wood detailing and throws the table into a warm spotlight. The aromas from the kitchen swirl in the air and act as an appetizer before the appetizer. Someone across from you motions that the show is about to begin. Turning in your plush chair, you are greeted with an elaborate act that gets your heart racing and your stomach grumbling.
But this isn’t your normal dinner theater. Nor is this fine dining experience at a five star hotel. It’s deep in the kitchen of a convention center, one of a growing number that are blazing a trail in customer service. You and your companions are in a tasting room, a room designated solely to showcase the culinary skills of—yes, that’s right—a convention center. Oh, and the show you’re about to watch? That’s your event menu unfolding before your eyes.
While tasting a menu before an event is not exactly front-page news, a room entirely dedicated to that tasting should be. Why, you ask? As event planners, we all need the assurance that our event will be memorable, and most people tend to remember the food. A venue boasting a tasting room shows a commitment to delivering not only the best food but exceptional service to boot.
The basic idea behind these tasting rooms is simple: To ensure that what an event planner wants is what the event planner gets. It is an opportunity for the convention center staff to dazzle those planners with their culinary magic. It is also a chance for the staff to get to know the planner, and thus provide an even better experience for all involved.
“What you see [in the tasting room] is what you get the day of the event,” says Jami Leveen, director of marketing for ARAMARK Convention Centers and Cultural Attractions. ARAMARK is leading the way in establishing convention centers as places that can provide gourmet food for all sizes and types of events. With accounts in more than 50 convention centers and cultural attractions throughout the country, ARAMARK’s newest point of pride is the sumptuous Tasting Room at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle.
During a 2001 renovation, the Washington State Convention Center upgraded its kitchens. Knocking down walls and removing a few offices left plenty of space just off the kitchen. Fitted out with a boardroom-size table and plush seats for 12, the space that became the Tasting Room is also equipped with Internet and audiovisual capabilities. More prominently on display, however, is the hustle and bustle of the working kitchen, visible through a
The procedure for using the Tasting Room is simple. Once the convention center is booked and all nonfood items have been hashed out in detail, the event planner and the caterers can start creating the menu. Building the menu on paper is the first step. Several dishes may be discussed, planned, revamped, omitted, or selected. Then, depending on the type of cuisine chosen, a tasting may be scheduled.
The room can be dressed up or down to reflect how the venue will look on the day of the event. Menus can be paired with wine and discussed in detail before any decisions are made. If need be, planners can start over from scratch and reschedule another tasting until they are completely satisfied.
In order to enter the Tasting Room, event planners must first walk through the working kitchen. This does not mean, of course, that they have to dodge hot skillets while yelling out kitchen-speak. It just means they have the opportunity to see the inner workings of the kitchen which will be providing their event’s meals.
Just outside the Tasting Room at the Washington State Convention Center, there is a prep area along the large glass wall overlooking the kitchen. It is here that the finishing touches of each dish are prepared by the chef. This bit of showmanship allows event planners to see the center’s commitment to providing excellent food, and gives them a glimpse of what to expect during their event.
“The tasting room stepped up the level of service and style,” says Scott Walden, special events manager for the Seattle Men’s and Women’s Chorus. In the past, Walden sampled menus for events at the Washington State Convention Center from a table for ten set up in the middle of the kitchen, an experience he describes as “fun and unique.” By contrast, seeing dishes prepared in the Tasting Room really sets the tone for the actual event, he says, giving him a better feel of how the event will run. “It’s being well taken care of on a first class basis,” he adds.
During the tasting, center staff even played recordings of the Seattle Men’s and Women’s Chorus in order to give Walden a feel for how the finished event would play out. His experiences with the Washington State Convention Center’s Tasting Room have been so exceptional that he has even started to auction off, as a fundraiser, a seat or two in the Tasting Room with the Chorus Committee as an event in and of itself.
The Tasting Room at the Washington State Convention Center is currently an only child for ARAMARK. A sibling is in the works as the Phoenix Civic Plaza Convention Center in Arizona begins expanding and renovating, while a third is still just a rustle of paper and few pencil marks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Another Tasting Room at the Georgia International Convention Center is operated by a local company, Proof of the Pudding.
So should a visit to the Tasting Room be a requirement for convention planners? Seattle’s Tasting Room seems a bit too refined for taste-testing the usual Continental breakfast or a coffee and cookie snack break. But it is a useful addition to the planning of a large event where attaining perfection is the goal—almost like a dress rehearsal for a wedding.
“Social events and conventions are different beasts, culinary-wise,” Leveen explains. At a social event, the meal may take on a more elegant, fine dining feel whereas a convention may require food that can travel as the clients peruse all that is on display.
It seems with the advent of the Tasting Room the message that you can get a gourmet meal at a convention center is erasing any previously-held notion to the contrary. Customer service, customer satisfaction, culinary perfection: these are the principles to which all caterers should adhere. With the utilization of a Tasting Room, these principles become easier to deliver.