Creating Successful Food Demos

Successful food programs can boost sales, educate shoppers, and build community support for your store. Your customers will enjoy the free sample, the friendly smile and the pleasant patter that helps them understand the product and its use.

Putting on a successful food demo is a little like throwing a party. Wise decisions and careful planning on your part allow your guests to enjoy a pleasing, seemingly seamless experience. A poorly staffed, unattractive sampling with inappropriate product can, however, be worse than none at all!

I've worked with New Pioneer for a number of years and have helped develop our sampling and educational program. Armed with hot plates, electric fry pans, and stacks of recipes, my assistant and I like to cook up a storm right before our shoppers' eyes. Our main goal in cooking demos is to help shoppers acquire a new main course that is easy and quick to prepare. Your instore food presentations maybe more or less complex, but the critical elements that determine excellence or mediocrity will be the same.

It is important to remember we have multiple goals. We hope to increase sales and increase shoppers' knowledge. We would like to provide enjoyable human interaction and encourage people to try a product or consider a new idea. To be effective, our event will need to be convenient, visually pleasing, and scheduled to match the traffic and mood of the store. Let's consider each of these.

What products and why?

Two of our primary goals are to increase sales and increase shopper knowledge. What foods or products do you want to promote and why? Here are some ideas:

  • Popular items: to build on success of an already popular item
  • New items: to provide shoppers with a low risk, easy wayto sample new items
  • Seasonal: sweet corn in August, champagne in December, etc.
  • Obscure: to highlight little known products that are worthwhile
  • Nutritionally superior: to educate the customer about health building foods
  • Abundant: to help move a well stocked item out the door
  • Featured item: to draw attention to product and prices featured in advertising or to promote a storewide marketing food theme
  • Environmentally sound: produced organically, available in bulk
  • Fun foods at predictable times: to build camaraderie between store and customer, for example wine tasting from 5-7 on Fridays

Another goal of in-store sampling is to provide enjoyable human interactions. Don't underestimate this one! Even the busy person who dashes past with a shake of the head likes being invited. Almost everyone is flattered that you would offer to help them build their health or to expand their menu. And for some folks, the chance to snack and visit with you may be the highlight of their day!

Therefore, the selection of the person to staff the sampling is extremely important.

Choosing your host

Should you be the person who staffs the samplings? Consider the qualities of an effective sampler listed below, and remember: the person who conducts samplings can build tremendous personal and professional good will. If you are the store manager, consider leaving the papers and phones in the office. Come out and let your staff and shoppers get to know you in the role of the friendly, knowledgeable sampling host. If you are friendly, knowledgeable, and do your homework as noted, it will be easy to get shoppers to sample the product and buy the product or idea.

Here are specific suggestions on choosing the sampling host:

  • Evaluate staff or member workers and develop one or more persons to be samplers
  • Look for a person who can field questions about the entire store or who understands how to summon the appropriate staff person
  • Sit down with your sampler and explain your expectations, give them literature to read to prepare themselves

Here are some qualities of an effective sampler:

  • Is friendly and outgoing
  • Has good appearance
  • Has good health
  • Speaks the language
  • Can memorize three paragraphs of information
  • Has stamina
  • Is attentive to details
  • Is a teacher and a booster -- has a positive attitude
  • Can effectively promote foods the sampler does not eat


One of our goals is to have a visually pleasing and convenient display. Consider these elements:

  • An effective location in the store in a high traffic area or near key products
  • The product available for sale at the display, or some indication of where to find the product
  • Handouts of recipes, educational fliers, or prefabricated promotional material from the manufacturer
  • Attractive and appropriate utensils, wares, and trays
  • Still life of ingredients
  • Signage such as "Free Samples" or "Try Spicy Chicken Jambalaya"
  • Name tag for sampler
  • Nice tablecloth and napkins


Scheduling is important to the success of sampling. Here are some pointers:

  • Schedule during busy times
  • Schedule to match shoppers' mood -- cheese and wine on Friday, quick and easy items on Saturday, bagels and coffee on Sunday
  • Schedule to coincide with marketing themes

Mind your manners

An effective sampler or food demo person will rely on wit, charm and stamina. This is a little party, so keep it fun! The sampler must stand, in my opinion. If you have an assistant doing prep, they may sit. Some tips on sampling manners:

  • Speak to everyone, greet by name if possible
  • Invite participation
  • Cheerfully accept refusals and people ignoring you
  • Be sensitive to dietary restrictions and empower people with information
  • Keep the conversation going with several people at once if possible
  • Match the patter to the person, watch the face and eyes to see if they are following you, show any unfamiliar words on printed material
  • Offer literature
  • Be ready to explain options -- is this available in bulk as well as packaged
  • Don't apologize for anything -- either get it right or shut it down

Retail teamwork

You've got the person, the product, the place and a plan. Now don't forget your support team. Forewarn department managers if you're going to sample an item so they can have plenty on hand to accommodate the increased sales the sampling will generate. Let the clerks in the appropriate departments know what your featured items are so they can restock as necessary during the event. Protect your department managers' margins by conscientiously recording every item that comes off the shelf for sampling. Effective sampling will more than pay its costs in increased sales and good will, so allocate resources for both labor and product expense.

I hope these ideas will be helpful in creating or evaluating your sampling program. Good luck!

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