Text 28 Oct Keys to Conducting A Successful Food Tasting

Back at the end of August, Schnitz held 3 tastings prior to our debut. At the time none of us had any experience in conducting a food tasting. We had not previously read about it and due to a time crunch (we had to develop the first draft of the menu prior to our launch at the Hester Street Fair on September 17), we improvised. We conducted one tasting, measured the success and iterated. Therefore, my notes, observations and recommendations below are not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Feedback from those who compose surveys or run focus groups is certainly welcome. Just remember it’s a food setting.

I would liken a tasting to participating in a survey that is conducted in person.  You have the usual comprehension and writing components but there’s an action component that is done live… tasting the food! Naturally this is the best part and it helped us to attract a varied crowd of participants. This brings me to the first key to success: a diverse group. We invited people from all sorts of backgrounds: American, Israeli, German, Mexican, Korean, Italian. While you most certainly have a target demographic, your food should appeal to a broad range of individuals in order to truly achieve a successful dish and business. We invited people via social networks, our blog and personal invitations through friends and colleagues. From experience he less people who know each other, the better.

The next key is structure.

- Review a rough agenda with the tasting group beforehand. It’s only fair that participants have an understanding of their commitment and how the time will be spent.

- Assemble a group of no more than 14-15 people. You want to focus on preparing the dish perfectly and you need to be able to serve everyone at the same time so that reactions don’t throw people off.

- Serve no more than 10 unique dishes. It’s tough for participants to be subjected to too many flavors at once and they need time to properly score each dish.

- As best you can (and I know this may be tough in NYC), seat everyone a good distance apart. You want to avoid any type of reaction (verbal or facial) that may influence another participant. 

- Be sure to give everyone ample time to review each dish before proceeding to the next. 

- I think it goes without say that there should basically be no talking except for the mediator giving the instructions. 

- Lastly, ensure a glass of water is available for each participant in order to cleanse the palate before each dish.

The next key is format. A tasting for a more traditional restaurant would probably move in a similar fashion to a three course meal. Start with appetizers, move to the entrees and finish with desserts. For Schnitz, things were a bit more complicated. We have a sandwich that’s comprised of a schnitzel with a particular breading, a sauce and a garnish (or side). In a store front, customers will also have the option of enjoying these three components separately in a platter. So we had to decide whether to serve the sandwich first and then each component separately, or serve each component first and then the sandwich. There are pros and cons to each approach. We leaned towards having everyone try the components first with the thinking that they’ll be able to pick out the flavors they like when they try the sandwich. However, there are certainly benefits to not knowing the contents: a ‘blind’ tasting. Maybe it is best to simply try both formats. I’m still unsure to be honest.

The final key is the questionnaire. This is the most difficult part. There are people that specialize in conducting focus groups and surveys. They know how to phrase, organize and present questions. In the food world, I don’t know anyone who specializes in this. Thankfully we had the help of a good friend Angelina Lopez who has experience in creating questionnaires and comment cards. She gave us some great tips for the layout. I’ve included below a ‘before and after’ so you can see the enhancements between the tastings.  

At first we had distributed the questionnaire as a stack of papers that were stapled together. The problem with this is that participants were looking ahead to the next dish, which compromises the element of surprise and hence the tasting. In later tastings, the instruction sheet sat on the table for the participant’s reference and each dish came with a separate comment card that was collected before moving to the next dish (highly recommended). Another thing I’m still uncertain of is whether or not it’s good to list the ingredients or to hide them. Is it best for participants to look at the ingredients and state which flavors they enjoyed or would like to see more/less? Or is it better for them to go in blind and simply describe the dish?

Just a couple more quick tips:

  • Beware of dietary restrictions for your participants. A thorough announcement at the beginning is advised. 
  • Also, as chef Jordy Lavanderos states, “If someone says the dish is ‘interesting,’ they don’t like it!” Elaborate!
Link 28 Oct Keys to Conducting A Successful Food Tasting»

Back at the end of August, Schnitz held 3 tastings prior to our debut. At the time none of us had any experience in conducting a food tasting. We had not previously read about it and due to a time crunch (we had to develop the first draft of the menu prior to our launch at the Hester Street Fair on September 17), we improvised. We conducted one tasting, measured the success and iterated. Therefore, my notes, observations and recommendations below are not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Feedback from those who compose surveys or run focus groups is certainly welcome. Just remember it’s a food setting.

I would liken a tasting to participating in a survey that is conducted in person.  You have the usual comprehension and writing components but there’s an action component that is done live… tasting the food! Naturally this is the best part and it helped us to attract a varied crowd of participants. This brings me to the first key to success: a diverse group. We invited people from all sorts of backgrounds: American, Israeli, German, Mexican, Korean, Italian. While you most certainly have a target demographic, your food should appeal to a broad range of individuals in order to truly achieve a successful dish and business. We invited people via social networks, our blog and personal invitations through friends and colleagues. From experience he less people who know each other, the better.


The next key is structure.

  • Review a rough agenda with the tasting group beforehand. It’s only fair that participants have an understanding of their commitment and how the time will be spent.
  • Assemble a group of no more than 14-15 people. You want to focus on preparing the dish perfectly and you need to be able to serve everyone at the same time so that reactions don’t throw people off.
  • Serve no more than 10 unique dishes. It’s tough for participants to be subjected to too many flavors at once and they need time to properly score each dish.
  • As best you can (and I know this may be tough in NYC), seat everyone a good distance apart. You want to avoid any type of reaction (verbal or facial) that may influence another participant. 
  • Be sure to give everyone ample time to review each dish before proceeding to the next. 
  • I think it goes without say that there should basically be no talking except for the mediator giving the instructions. 
  • Lastly, ensure a glass of water is available for each participant in order to cleanse the palate before each dish.

The next key is format. A tasting for a more traditional restaurant would probably move in a similar fashion to a three course meal. Start with appetizers, move to the entrees and finish with desserts. For Schnitz, things were a bit more complicated. We have a sandwich that’s comprised of a schnitzel with a particular breading, a sauce and a garnish (or side). In a store front, customers will also have the option of enjoying these three components separately in a platter. So we had to decide whether to serve the sandwich first and then each component separately, or serve each component first and then the sandwich. There are pros and cons to each approach. We leaned towards having everyone try the components first with the thinking that they’ll be able to pick out the flavors they like when they try the sandwich. However, there are certainly benefits to not knowing the contents: a ‘blind’ tasting. Maybe it is best to simply try both formats. I’m still unsure to be honest.


The final key is the questionnaire. This is the most difficult part. There are people that specialize in conducting focus groups and surveys. They know how to phrase, organize and present questions. In the food world, I don’t know anyone who specializes in this. Thankfully we had the help of a good friend Angelina Lopez who has experience in creating questionnaires and comment cards. She gave us some great tips for the layout. I’ve included below a ‘before and after’ so you can see the enhancements between the tastings.  

At first we had distributed the questionnaire as a stack of papers that were stapled together. The problem with this is that participants were looking ahead to the next dish, which compromises the element of surprise and hence the tasting. In later tastings, the instruction sheet sat on the table for the participant’s reference and each dish came with a separate comment card that was collected before moving to the next dish (highly recommended). Another thing I’m still uncertain of is whether or not it’s good to list the ingredients or to hide them. Is it best for participants to look at the ingredients and state which flavors they enjoyed or would like to see more/less? Or is it better for them to go in blind and simply describe the dish?


Just a couple more quick tips:

  • Beware of dietary restrictions for your participants. A thorough announcement at the beginning is advised. 
  • Also, as chef Jordy Lavanderos states, “If someone says the dish is ‘interesting,’ they don’t like it!” Elaborate!
Text 27 Oct What’s a Paillard??

Even the New York Times is jumping on the schnitzel wagon. Take a look at this recent article by Mark Bittman entitled, “Taking a Pounding" posted on October 20, 2011. He gives you 10 ways to make paillards, which is a french word meaning thinly pounded meat…sounds like schnitzel to me! He advocates paillards becuase since the meat is pounded thin, you can cook it faster and there’s more surface area for crunchy goodness.

However, what was most interesting is when Bittman pointed out that certain cuts of meat are best suited for a paillard because they are extra juicy and tender. And I quote, “Those ‘right cuts’ include bonless chicken thighs (not breasts)…” For those who don’t already know, that’s exactly what we use at Schnitz and its one of the secrets to our deliciousness…shhhh.

Enjoy the article and let us know if you have any paillard (also referred to as a scallop or cutlet) secrets of your own.

paillard

Text 26 Oct More Press Coverage from Grub Street
Video 26 Oct

Wonderful Week 6 @ The Grub Street Food Festival


This past Sunday we vended at the Grub Street Food Festival in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The conditions could not have been more ideal for a mid-October weekend; it was 60 degrees, sunny and thankfully there was no wind. Hoards of foodies ventured downtown to try the delicacies of 70 vendors scattered across the tennis courts while enjoying beats from local DJ’s.

This was by far the busiest day of our Fall vending tour. At one point we had a line consisting of over 20 people. From our perspectives behind the counter, looking up at the line sends a rush of excitement but it rattles the nerves at the same time. We had to contend with a lot of new factors this week. More details below but first let’s start with some photos.

Also, here is a slideshow that Grub Street posted. The Bamberg schnitz is photo #2.

At a festival like Grub Street where you can expect a high volume of attendees, you can also be sure to have serious competition. We were surrounded by all sorts of competing products from Mexican to Jamaican to Korean to Mediterranean and even simple Mac’n’cheese. We observed that the more successful vendors were those who not only serve delicious food (given) but also have had experience in mobile vending. Without a doubt, the 5 weeks leading up to this event paid off big time. First, some of the positives:

  • This past week we divided the preparation over 3 days to lighten the load. Day 1 we handled the cabbage and jicama garnish as well as the beets tzatziki sauce. Day 2 we took care of the cucumber daikon garnish and carmelized onion mustard sauce. Day 3 we prepared the breadcrumbs and pounded the chicken. Breaking everything down into shorter tasks really helped to ease the stress and we’ll continue to do so.
  • We improved our signage which reduced the number of questions from customers and improved the speed at which we could take orders. First, we had a new sign that defined the word “schnitzel”. This was much needed. We saw a drastic reduction in people asking ‘what is schnitzel?’ because they were simply reading the sign. Second, we organized our menu more clearly and also placed it on an easel at eye level. Small changes that produced very positive results.
  • We adorned our customer facing table with a new blue checkered table cloth in addition to our usual yellow cloth. It was much more appealing. We also had a nice straw basket with our pretzel bread and lemons on display.
  • We were able to load and unload much faster this week with the use of our new dolly.
  • We were rocking new Schnitz hats (on sale soon!) which made us look like a team. Take a second look at those picsJ

In general, aesthetic improvements made a big difference this week. The successful vendors were those that had great signage and booth setups. Some notable ones wereBon Chovie (an experienced Smorgasburg vendor) as well as Miss Lily’s, a Jamaican restaurant on Houston and Sullivan that we highly recommend. Miss Lily’s had a huge Jamaican flag and super cool people taking your order. I don’t think they usually setup stands at markets so their preparedness was impressive. It took us weeks to get to where we are and it’s still not perfect. In contrast, some vendors had absolutely delicious food but a smaller turnout because of their setup. Our friends at Dos Toros (check out their hilarious new “Guac it Out” video) who typically have ridiculously long lines at their store fronts in Union Square and the West Village (I’m talking around the block!) said they were not as busy because they didn’t have a tent or good signage. We noticed this with others as well. It just goes to show how important the branding and look of your establishment is, whether it’s an outdoor booth or physical store.

Now, although we had a great day, success brings new challenges. I mentioned earlier that the line of schnitzel hungry patrons is exciting to see but also nerve-racking. Why? Well we’ve never handled demand like we experienced on Sunday and thus new glitches started to arise.

·         Fryer. She’s never been tested like she was this past weekend. The flame that heats the oil at the top of the fryer started to come out of the bottom of a blackened pipe. I gotta say, we were pretty nervous for a while.  Thankfully she survived and successfully cooked over 120 pounds of chicken. We certainly need to purchase a new and more powerful fryer, but I think we’re going to try and last 4 more weeks at Smorgasburg where the demand will not be so high. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

·         Beverage dispenser. The limonana container started to leak this week. This typically happens with poorly-made dispensers. As they say, you get what you pay for. It didn’t prevent us from serving; it was more of an annoyance. We’re looking to purchase a new one this week. What do you think of this one??

In general, our appliances go through a lot of wear and tear every week during transport so we recommend durable products for the long-run. It pays off.

·         Customer service. The great joys of the food business are seeing people smile when you serve them and receiving a compliment from a satisfied customer. Nothing feels better, promise.  What you don’t think about before opening a restaurant are all the people who won’t be satisfied. Yes, they exist. I know, you’re probably thinking, “how can they not love it?!” but it’s inevitable. People are very critical, especially in the food world. So this past weekend we came face to face with some unhappy customers. Fortunately, it was not due to our product or its taste; it had more to do with service. I think we can all agree that we have much to improve. We simply had never experienced such an appetitie for Schnitz. It’s a lot of pressure to prepare hundreds of sandwiches in a limited time and space all the while maintaining a high level of consistency.

In one instance, we had a customer that ordered one Bamberg and one Sweet Onion sandwich. In an attempt to serve food as fast as possible so the customer could begin eating, we served the sweet onion first and 5 minutes later the Bamberg. Well that attempt failed after hearing, “you know I now have one cold sandwich and one hot sandwich!” It felt like being punched in the gut. Lesson learned: serve all the items in a ticket together! People want to eat their food together; hot and fresh.

The other challenge we had was determining the exact number of sandwiches we would have left. We had to stop taking orders at the end to be sure we could fill the pending tickets (money we had already collected). At the end we had a customer that was upset because we sold out and he waited for 10 minutes without knowing we were done. We apologize and hope he will come to Smorgasburg to give Schnitz another shot.

For the future we need to communicate better, especially with regards to waiting times. We now know that with about 10 pending orders, the wait will be 11-13 minutes from the time the order is placed.

·         Personnel. Another issue on busy days like Sunday is personnel. Our usual crew of 4 (one taking orders, one breading, one frying and one assembling sandwiches) will not suffice. We need an extra person helping to assemble sandwiches and expedite orders out the door. In addition, the one who is breading the chicken needs to periodically cut more bread and clean the stations. Thanks to Matt, Sheffie, Sam and Gila for stepping up and helping us push through over 200 orders. Great job.

For next weekend, we’re going to have some of the following new materials:

  • Plastic bags for take-out orders
  • A new beverage dispenser
  • Spring clips to hang our chalkboards on the ez-up tent for better visibility.
  • A new garbage can for the breading station so that personnel in the back don’t need to come to the front to dispose of materials

Until next time…!

Text 22 Oct Grub Street Food Festival TOMORROW!

Tomorrow is the big day. Join Schnitz at the one and only Grub Street Food Festival sponsored by the one and only New York Magazine. The festival is located on the corner ofHester and Essex streets. We’ve got over 200 schnitzels marinated and ready to go. The weather is slated to be a sunny, quintissential fall day. Here is a link to a complete list of the 70 confirmed vendors and a chart that shows the layout of all the stands.

grub street sign

We hope to see some of you out there. We’ll be schnitzin’ all day!

P.S. There will be a beer garden and music at the festival. Schnitz happens to go really well with beer and music :)

Text 21 Oct Recap: Windy Week 5 at the Smorgasburg

Week 5 of mobile Schnitz is in the books. Sorry for the delay on this recap. We’ve been busy lining up our ducks for The Grub Street Food Festival this coming Sunday!Check out the fresh cucumber daikon pickle below.

So at the markets we’ve dealt with heat, rain and this past week we were introduced to wind. Before we could complete our morning setup, our tent tried blowing away numerous times. We were able to lock it down with cinder blocks thanks to our friendly vendor neighbors but the Smorgasburg management required us to remove the tarps on top of the tents right before 11AM so to prevent them from flying away. Throughout the course of the day, we dealt with strong gusts of wind and each time yelling “HOLD!” to keep things in place. I honestly think we faired pretty well considering the conditions. Our friends at @bitesizekitchen were not always as lucky ;).

Overall, it was a much smoother process this past week. It really does get better every time. Below are a list of additional supplies and materials we are acquiring to improve the operation and presentation of our booth:

  • New outdoor table cloth
  • New signage
  • A shnazzy folding dolly for transporting coolers back and forth. Highly recommended!
  • Large cambros that can fit 200 portions of pickled garnishes each

Last week we discussed how important it was to pre-portion our limonana drink. Well, we started working on a system to simplify serving it, to improve the speed of our refills and to keep the drink tasting consistent. Into our drink dispenser we are now mixing fresh squeezed lemon juice, water and mint. On the side, we have a squeeze bottle of a simple syrup that we’ve concocted with sugar and water. When the order comes in: load a cup with ice and fresh mint leaves, squeeze just the right amount of syrup and top it off with the lemon juice. A really refreshing drink. It complements the schnitzel well.

Big Restaurant Depot run for the Grub Street Food Festival this week! We’ll get a video uploaded of this place. If you’ve never been, its absolutely incredible.

See you all on SUNDAY this week!

P.S. Grub Street will also have a beer garden and DJ’s sponsored by Santos Party House

Text 17 Oct Update: The Elevens

About a month ago we reported about a restaurant opening in tribeca called The Elevens. They are seeking to raise $500 from 2000 people to become ‘seatholders’. Seatholders are not legal owners of the business but will receive preferred reservations, 25% off the bill each time they dine and a say in some of the operational matters. It’s one of the first truly crowd-funded restaurants in New York and they are doing it completely organically via theirwebsite.

I just wanted to give a quick update because not only have they already received commitments from 134 seatholders but they were recently featured in an article in the Dining section of the New York Times as “the most ambitious” crowdfunding plan. The founders of The Elevens are trying to build a tight-knit community around the restaurant. As opposed to previously crowdfunded projects (e.g. via Kickstarter) where the contributors do not know each other, seatholders at The Elevens will have a physical place to convene and socialize. We highly recommend checking out their progress.

Text 17 Oct Week 8 Review @ the Smorgasburg

Every week brings new surprises and this past week was no different. We picked up the U-Haul at 7AM and went over to our storage space on St. Marks Place to grab all the materials. We were just about finished loading the van when Matt (who’s been operating our deep fry for most weeks) appears. “What are you doing here so early??!” “I got some bad news guys. Someone called in sick at Mark and I need to work the morning shift.” Wow! We were already shortstaffed because Donna is on vacation. This was going to be interesting. We continued on our way to Brooklyn and called in the reserves. Thanks, once again, to Angelina Lopez for filling in at the front while Yoni and I worked the back. It would have been virtually impossible without you. The 3-person operation actually worked out quite well.

This was a great lesson learned for us though. We had never experienced any issues with employees up to this point but as you might expect, there’s a lot of turnover in the restaurant business so its a common problem. We’re only operating once a week; imagine the potential issues when you’re open 7 days a week! Thankfully the Schnitz concept does not require much training which is a huge plus so Angelina was handling our point of sale system and describing schnitz sandwiches in no time.

It was an unseasonably warm day in Williamsburg and the market was bustling with people. We sold out by 3pm with about 88 sandwiches. It’s been tough to estimate the correct amount of food to prepare. On one hand we don’t want to bring too much because we don’t want to waste food but at the same time we don’t want to bring too little and miss out on eager customers.

The new deep fry worked like a charm this past week. We never had to worry about it for even a second. It was marvelous. It’s got 90,000 BTU’s and had no problem keeping the temperature consistently hot. We’ll just bring some plyers next week to help attach the gas line more easily.

We also tested out a new item this past week, tea with nana (fresh mint), which replaced our cold beverage, limonana. Unfortunately, the sales did not work out too well. First, it was not as cold as we had expected. Second, we did not have a long enough extension cord to keep the percolator hot. Third, still trying to decide if tea goes well with schnitzel :) We’ll give it one more shot this coming weekend but we’ll have an extension cord this time.

Mint-tea

This week we’re planning to finish with a bang. We’ll have close to 200 portions ready to go as we expect a beautiful day and nice turnout for the last Smorgasburg of the Fall! See you there.

Text 16 Oct Schnitz is Vending at the Grub Street Food Festival!

Schnitz is proud to announce that we’ve been invited to vend at the Grub Street Food Festivalon Sunday, October 23, 2011. The festival is held at the same location as the Hester Street Market except there will be triple the vendors taking over the tennis courts next door. Last year saw an attendance of over 15,000 people!

Check out some great articles from last year, here and here, as well as this short preview. Below is a short list of confirmed vendors.

An Choi
Arancini Bros.
Asiadog
Bark Hot Dogs
Big Gay Ice Cream Truck
Cascabel Taqueria
Cemita’s
Char No. 4
Commodore
Daisy Duke’s
Ditch Plains
Dolce Nonna
Dos Toros
Eve’s Pies
Fatty Cakes
Fonda
Fresh Ginger, Ginger Ale & Bao by Bruce Cost
Georgia’s Eastside BBQ
Hot Blondies
Kelvin Natural Slush Co.
Kickstand Coffee
La Newyorkina
La Sonrisa Empanadas
Luke’s Lobster
Lux Sugar
Macaron Parlour
Mama O’s Premium Kimchee
Mexicue
Mighty Balls
Mimi & Coco
My Hero Cuisine
P&H Soda Co.
Patacon Pisao
Peels
Pies ‘N Thighs
Purple Yam
Schnitz
SlantShack Jerky
Snap
The Brindle Room
The Chibi Chef
The Shaved Ice Shop
Tuck Shop
Wechsler’s
White Belly Pizza
Wonder City Coffee and Donut Bar

We are really proud to be a part of this New York City affair. It’s going to be MASSIVE and we hope that you can make it out. Stay tuned for a Schnitz surprise!


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