What makes a registered nurse and a school administrator decide to open a food tour business? For life and business partners Carlo Medina and Geneva Europa, it was a mutual love of food and excitement about the burgeoning Oakland food scene that made them want to share their enthusiasm with others through Savor Oakland Food Tours.
It was also a six-month break traveling across Central and South America that inspired the couple to share Oakland’s unique history and culinary character. According to Carlo, the couple had always shared a dream of taking time off from work to travel. Two years ago, they decided to take the plunge, quitting their jobs and putting their apartment up for lease so they could make their way through Latin America from Guatemala to Argentina.
One of their favorite places on the trip was Colombia—particularly the city of Medellín. Despite Colombia’s reputation for being dangerous, Carlo said they found it to be one of the safest and most interesting places they traveled to—full of art, culture, history and great food.
“We spent a lot of time in Medellín,” Carlo said. “It’s beautiful and has its own flavor—it’s a hot spot. The art and the food scene are amazing. We walked around the city and ate our way through Medellín.”
Walking around the city, exploring its culture and food sparked an idea: Why not take that experience and bring it home to Oakland?
“We thought ‘We should do something in Oakland that represents Oakland in a fair and balanced manner.’ People don’t know Oakland the way we see it on a day-to-day basis. We thought food is a good way for people to get to know a city, and we decided to hone in on the culinary scene in Oakland and represent the city, the history of the city and to help people have a better understanding of the city.”
Upon returning to Oakland, they sought out the guidance of Shane Kost, owner of Chicago Food Planet, a food tour company in Chicago, and Food Tour Pros, his consulting business that provides guidance on how to run food local food tours. Kost, who Carlo refers to as “the Godfather of food tours,” helps aspiring food tour leaders to determine how to set up a food tour business, market themselves and become a successful business.
With more than 60 new restaurants having opened in Oakland over the past year, choosing a neighborhood for the tours meant some careful consideration.
“Everyday there’s some new amazing food coming out of Oakland. The tours are a good gateway for people to learn and understand about the city—it’s a side of Oakland that people haven’t seen,” Carlo said.
Carlo and Geneva knew that they also wanted to include a historical element to their tours. To kick-off their Oakland food tour business, they decided to focus first on the Oakland waterfront and Jack London Square where the city got its start due to the Port and the Transcontinental Railroad and also because the food scene in that area has been taking off over the past few years.
According to Carlo, getting local businesses to agree to be a part of the tour took some convincing at first. After an initially discouraging three months of pavement pounding and discussions with local restaurants, they were finally able to put together a tour that shortly began bringing returns to the restaurateurs, too, providing proof that the concept could help local businesses. Once the restaurateurs began seeing repeat business from people who had taken the tours, their initial hesitancy about the business model disappeared.
Savor Oakland’s Jack London tours are scheduled on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with tours running for approximately three hours. (Tours are currently on winter hiatus until late January.) Jack London area businesses that have participated or are currently featured on the tour include Chop Bar, Home of Chicken and Waffles, Blue Bottle Coffee, Authentic Bagel, Urban Legend Cellars, Baia Pasta, Forge, Bocanova and Miette. Tours include a small tasting menu at each destination.
Plans for Savor Oakland in 2014 include the addition of a Chinatown tour, which Carlo says will likely begin in early February. Despite all the other neighborhoods in Oakland with active food scenes, they chose Chinatown as their next destination due to its proximity to the city’s history and art and due to its unique pan-Asian community and restaurants. Whereas Chinatown in San Francisco has become a huge tourist destination, Carlo said, Oakland’s Chinatown is more of a place where people live and that features a wide variety of food. The Chinatown tour will break down the basics of Chinese food and allow participants to try the basics, Carlo said, as well as experience regional differences in cooking both across China and south Asia.
“We’re not in a rush to go to other places. Quality not quantity,” Carlo said. “It’s about ‘What are you doing for the city of Oakland?’ We’re all about promoting the city as a whole so they’ll come back. It’s for awareness of history, culture and art.”
What drew you to food?
I think between the both of us, my wife Geneva and partner, we go back to what we both enjoy and what we can see ourselves doing as a business. Somehow it always got back to to food—it wasn’t like, ‘oh we want to build something.’ We wanna eat, we want to show people where the best places are to eat. So it all revolves around the commonality of what we both enjoy to do and talk about. Food is always the common ground.
Why food tours?
I felt like in terms of overhead, it’s great because we’re not really making anything. We’re not making the food, we’re not manufacturing anything, we’re basically an online business. We don’t have a storefront like restaurateurs. So in terms of making a business, we’re bringing people to restaurants at a very basic level, and we’re not making anything. It’s an art in itself marketing to people to get here, but once they’re here, you do your thing and do all the things we need to do to make a successful tour. It’s not easy but it’s more accessible as a business to start off with, so I think the food tours were a good fit, especially with us still working full time and doing them Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Traveling. I think in Central and South America it really inspired us in terms of seeing different foods and the food of a country. One thing we’re both obsessed with is Chinese food. And we wanted to try Chinese food—in every Central and South American country there was Chinese food and a small Chinese population, whether it’s in Guatemala or Panama. In Panama there’s actually a huge Chinese population there. And it’s funny their take on Chinese food is so different how it evolved in Panama as opposed to America. And just the different regional differences in Chinese food and influence of different cultures on food—that inspired us to work with variety. The different restaurants we go to, it’s a cross section of different cultural identities and foods and how they all landed and ended up here in Oakland. Just the origins of food really inspired us and where these ideas actually came from and sharing that knowledge.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I think especially with the food tour business there’s a specific way [of doing things]. I mean luckily we had Shane, he’s our mentor in building the business. It’s basically just really just recognizing your brand and not trying to dilute it. People have to know what to associate with your brand with. If it’s Savor Oakland Jack London food tours, they have to know that’s our classic tour. There are 20 different neighborhoods in Oakland, are you going to fill all those tours every different week?
So I think the best advice given to us was ‘know what your brand is.’ And it’s a foot race – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. People don’t realize that. Like Amazon, Facebook—they don’t make money yet—Amazon in 10, 15 years they have not made one cent yet—they’re still in the red, yet people recognize their brand. Luckily this year we actually broke even, we did make some profit. Not enough to live on, but people know our brand. Say Savor Oakland and they know Jack London, and they’re going to know Chinatown and so our brand is packed, it’s really strong. It’s what we wanted to build over the year and not rush into every hot spot because ‘Oh, this place is cool.’ Yeah we know it’s cool, but what about your brand?
In terms of advice, I know we all want to make money, but you have to understand there’s a whole process behind getting your brand out there and making sure you have a good product that’s not diluted and just concentrating on the basics – is your product good? If you look on Yelp, we have five stars, I mean that’s rare. We have like 54 reviews. We’re on TripAdvisor, we have five stars. People are asking, ‘How do you get that in a whole year?’ People have even asked us if we’ve been around for five years, but we’ve kept the core of really enhancing our brand and promoting us slowly but steadily, not putting ourselves out there too much, too fast, but just enough where it makes sense.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think a lot of it was getting the restaurants on board. Were dealing with the biggest restaurateurs in Oakland and so you come in there with your business card thinking you have the best idea in the world and you come out and your ego is just crushed in like two seconds. I mean I’ve had a lot of hang ups and a lot of soul searching like, ‘What are we doing? Do people not want to work with us?’
But it’s funny because a lot of these owners are our friends now, and they consider us colleagues because they realize what we do now. I think keeping your eyes focused because it’s easy to get discouraged. And the first month or two or three or four months were a lot of discouragement, but we just pushed through to make sure that they realized where we’re at with the business and that we’re on board and making sure they know we’re here for them. You know we’re promoting them.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing?
The people we’ve met—meeting 2000 people on these tours, it’s great. We’ve gotten some friends from the tours in terms of people who are great people. Whether they’re from Walnut Creek or a couple we met from Sweden, we meet new people every week. And they have a smile on their face after the tour and just them realizing that ‘Oh, we didn’t know this about Oakland.’
So new people, and how do we get people to recognize that Oakland is here, we’re not an up and coming city – it’s here. It’s great having that and getting that [feedback at] the end of the tour and then just keeping in touch with people via email—that’s one of the biggest things we’ve appreciated.
Ooooo, that’s tough. You know it changes every week, but probably the chicken and waffles consistently from the Home of Chicken and Waffles. It’s just the sweet and savory nature of the dish always surprises people that have never had it—that’s usually the favorite. That and Authentic Bagels. Those guys make the best bagels, I would say, in the Bay Area. The bagels and Home of Chicken and Waffles. It’s always either the Home of Chicken and Waffles and the bagels or the other contingent is Forge Pizza and the ceviche [from Bocanova]. It’s like this little camp, Team Home of Chicken and Waffles or Team Ceviche – and usually it’s between different groups on different weeks.
What other local food artisans do you admire?
I think we have this kinship with all the people from Kitchener Oakland. A lot of them started the same time that we did. But the three that stand out to me are Gina from Chunky Pig, she has this amazing energy and we both started literally the same time and we’ve supported each other over the course of the year and it’s great seeing them grow as we grow. There’s Josh and Jenna from Sugar Knife Artisans, they do the alcohol infused brittle and marshmallows. They started the same time we did, we met them at a fair and we’ve served their stuff on tours. And then Sophia [Chang] from Kitchener, I mean just her energy and bringing together all these bakers and food artisans under one roof is amazing – that collective of vendors working out of Kitchener is amazing. It could be a mall of food if there if it was a physical store front, I mean there’s so much good food and so many creative ideas that come out of there. I mean those three really epitomize or are the epitome of small business and are just really hustling. I mean Josh and Jenna were in Bon Appetit the other week and that’s amazing. Their holiday orders have been off the chain, and Gina adding stores every week, that’s great.
Also the bagel brothers—Authentic Bagels Jason and Mark, those guys are probably the hardest working small food vendors we know. I mean then they work almost 24 hours between the both of them, one’s making the bagels, the other’s delivering them, and they make such a good product and they work so hard, those guys are inspirations. We work hard, but those guys—all of them, they want it and they want to promote their product and they want to promote Oakland—and they’re all pro-Oakland. That’s what we love about them, too. It’s not about making the products in Oakland, it’s a product of the city itsel,f and we appreciate that from them.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
You know we ask that question on the food tour – it’s the first question we ask. That’s funny…
For me, I think it’s probably pizza. When I was in Argentina, I mean they had like the best pizza I’ve had. Neopolitan style pepperoni pizza would probably be my last meal.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I like two people—James Syhabout from Commis—that’s one of the best meals we’ve ever had in our lives. If you ever have the chance to eat at the Chef’s counter, for a one-star Michelin restaurant, it’s a pretty good price and good deal. And the amount of restaurants he’s opened – Hawker Fare and the new venture—and James is such a nice guy, I mean the guy is super approachable. He’s not one of those celebrity chefs that are just like out there—he’s born and raised in Oakland, so its great to have him in Oakland and the stuff he represents.
Bocanova is probably one of our favorite restaurants in Oakland. Rick [Hackett] is a good guy – he and his wife Meredith have done a good thing with Bocanova – and I understand they’re opening up a chowderhouse next door – that will be a big deal. I don’t think a lot of people know about it but there’s going to be a big buzz around it.
One more guy – totally laid back guy and I don’t think he gets enough credit—the co-owner of Chop Bar—Lev Delany. He’s a really cool guy, he was probably one of our first really strong supporters in terms of like no questions asked. He just like supported us when we were at Chop Bar, and he’s always a good guy that I’ve gotten to know. He’s always been very gracious with us asking us if we need anything, very appreciative of the business we brought Chop Bar in our initial part of the year, and we’ve been big supporters of his biergarden on the waterfront. That has been super successful right now. He’s one of those guys and restaurateurs that are super approachable and really nice. They extend that to their business practices and their places, and it really shows in the long run where they’re going to go.
Savor Oakland Food Tours
Photos courtesy of Carlo Medina, Savor Oakland Food Tours.