Tours for traveling visitors to cities are nothing new. Most major metropolitan areas have various tours that travelers—or locals—can take to learn new things about the city they are visiting—architectural tours, art tours, bus tours, walking tours, boat tours. Tours allow people to easily get to know a slice of a city that should ideally leave them wanting to learn more and bring them back for another visit.
What many cities haven’t had until recently are food tours. Food tours often combine the best of what a city tour offers—a bit of history, a bit of culture, perhaps some art and architecture, walking—with a literal taste of a city’s unique food offerings. And with the nation’s growing interest in good food, food tourism is becoming an industry unto itself.
Twenty years ago, food tours were still a relatively novel offering for tourists and locals. According to GraceAnn Walden, who has been running tours in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood for more than twenty years and calls herself an “original gangster” of the food tour business, there were only two other people running food tours in the area when she started the first tours of San Francisco outside of Chinatown–one in Oakland and other by the late Shirley Fong-Torres of Wok Wiz in Chinatown.
“People were doing Chinatown, but nobody did North Beach, nobody did the Mission and when I did Chinatown, I did it from my perspective. My perspective is always about the history, the culture and, of course, the food,” Walden said.
Competing for Tummy Share
According to the World Food Travel Association, San Francisco is one of the top five culinary destinations in the U.S. In the Bay Area alone, there are now at nearly a dozen different food tour companies that people can choose from if they’d like a taste of San Francisco chocolate or cocktails, the Mission, North Beach, Hayes Valley, Japantown and the Fillmore or Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto and Oakland’s Jack London Square.
Shane Kost, owner of both Chicago Food Planet Tours (a food tour company) and Food Tour Pros, a food tour consulting business based in Chicago, attributes the growth in food tourism to a new cultural awareness of food brought about by the increase in food and cooking as a subject for television drama.
“I think it goes back probably it started when we got 24 hours a day, seven days a week Food Network and food shows. It really just goes back—in figurative and literal sense—on the menu,” he said.
Kost attributes an increase in travel for “food” tourism, as well.
“When people travel, I always say, there are two things people are interested in—where are they going to stay and where are they going to eat?” he said.
Tina Dong Pavao, who operates the San Francisco Chinatown-based Wok Wiz tours—which was founded over 26 years ago by her late mother Shirley Fong-Torres—agrees that things like the Food Network have made people more focused on food in general. The prevalence of food awareness has definitely played a part in demand for food tours, she said.
“Food is like the universal language,” she said. “There’s love, but there’s food also, and people find it so accessible, and it’s a great way to introduce yourself to a culture and get yourself quickly immersed in a culture. It’s a great gateway along with other avenues.”
Although veteran operators like GraceAnn Walden or Wok Wiz tours pioneered the concept of food tours in the Bay Area more than 20 years ago, Andrea Nadel of Gourmet Walks says that there’s been a surge in awareness of the food tour concept even since she began her business in 2007.
Nadel, who offers chocolate tours in San Francisco as well as tours of off-the-beaten path neighborhoods such as Hayes Valley, NoPA and the Japantown/Fillmore District, says when she started her business people would give her questioning looks when she explained what she was doing. Today, she says, the concept of food tours is a much more common. She believes the awareness echoes what’s been going on in tourism and travel throughout the world.
“What accounts for the surge – it sort of echoes not just in San Francisco, but what’s going on in travel all over the world—is that food is becoming more and more an essential part of travel. It seems like when people are going to different cities they’re looking immediately for the best restaurants and experiential food-type activities, whether it’s cooking classes or food tours,” she said.
The rise in food tour purveyors may also be a consequence of the Bay Area’s boom and bust economic cycles. Although all of the vendors I spoke to have their roots prior to the downturn, many noted that they have seen companies pop up—and sometimes disappear—since the economy has been on a rollercoaster ride over the past few years.
“People need to make money,” Walden said. “I think that’s it—that availability has been competitive to me. I think they’re just out of work. In the last two years, there’s been a slew of them.”
Multiple vendors mentioned that some area operators have relied on providing GroupOn discounts to locals and tourists to fill tours, which often undercuts competition among existing vendors. It can also undermine the value of food tours for the restaurateurs and food purveyors who participate in the tours, either reducing their cut from each tour that passes through their business or failing to provide repeat business from the people who go on the tours.
Edible Excursions owner Lisa Rogovin welcomes the competition because it differentiates the offerings and different levels of experience and expertise different companies have.
“There’s competition because there’s more interest in it. We live in a wonderful enterprising country so anybody can do it. I know companies come and they go already. A lot of companies haven’t been around for more than two or three years, so we’ll see, but I think competition is great and there’s so many potential customers for what I offer that I probably can’t service all of them. So it’s probably great that there are more companies doing it and we don’t all overlap. I’m never going to do a Chinatown tour—I wouldn’t feel authentic,” she said.
Gourmet Walks’ Nadel says that although the increased competition has probably had some effect on her business, she would be hesitant to try to offer more tours in San Francisco proper at this point, particularly in a neighborhood such as the Mission, where there’s already a lot of companies providing tours. Instead she’s focused on keeping up the quality of her current offerings and is looking to wine country for expansion, offering tours in Napa and recently starting a tour in Healdsburg.
“I don’t need to spread our customer base too thin by offering too many different products,” she said.
Not Just for Tourists
Despite the perception that tours are inherently for tourists, food tours tend to attract locals just as much as tourists. Most of the vendors interviewed here said they usually get a pretty healthy mix of locals and tourists on their tours. Many companies offer options for private or corporate tours for local companies. Walden has hosted tours for departments from companies such as Clorox or Electronic Arts, she said. Woz Wiz routinely offers its historical tours of Chinatown (which are not food-based) to schools from throughout California.
According to Rogovin, her tour audience tends to be about 80 percent locals. Because she originally started her tours in conjunction with local hotels, such as the Four Seasons, the amount of locals that go on her regular tours “has been the biggest surprise for me,” she said.
The good thing about food tours, according to Rogovin, is that they have something to offer everyone—from children to people in their 80s. As long as you’re fit enough to walk a few miles—and probably handle a few hills, this is the Bay Area, after all—and like to eat, you can participate. (One exception to this rule might be Rogovin’s San Francisco Cocktail Tour, where participants must be 21.) Most operators will also try to make note of food sensitivities or allergies.
According to Carlo Medina of Savor Oakland Tours, helping get repeat business for the Oakland businesses they feature on their tour has been part of the overall value they’ve been able to provide through their tours. Medina said proving that value was initially a tough sell for many of the businesses they approached, but once the restaurants started getting repeat business from the tours, they were on board with the concept.
“We’re all about promoting the city as a whole so they’ll come back,” Medina said.
Walden agrees that repeat business is part of how food tour operators give back to the neighborhoods and businesses they feature. Over the years, many of the people—particularly local women—that have gone on her tours have provided repeat business for the Italian delis and butcher shops of North Beach that she has featured on her tours.
“I never felt I was exploiting because I was giving back,” she said.
Both Medina and Walden noted that they have made good friends as a result of interacting with some of the people who have gone on their tours, as well.
Recipe for Success
Although being a food tour guide might seem like a permanent vacation with great food, it’s not as easy as it might seem. Edible Excursions’ Rogovin likened the tour business to being an event planner who works on 40 different parties in a given month.
“Imagine planning 40 weddings a month,” she said.
To really provide a quality tour requires both a certain type of personality and the ability to “perform” for an audience for two to three hours at a time. It can also require that you adapt your style and delivery to your audience, much like giving a speech or live presentation.
Kost’s training program at Food Tour Pros helps burgeoning food tour vendors create successful tours in their respective cities. Kost says he has had more than 200 students from 20 countries and 80 cities worldwide go through his training program, including Carlo Medina and Geneva Europa of Savor Oakland Tours. To his knowledge, everyone that has gone through the program and actually started a business is still in business. “Otherwise I’d be hearing about it,” he said.
Kost does think that there is a certain amount of personality required to lead successful tours. You can’t really be uncomfortable being in front of a crowd, he said.
Being engaging is also important, said Wok Wiz’s Pavao. “We pride ourselves on being able to reach everybody. We want to engage with everybody,” she said.
Many tour companies limit their offerings to weekends or a few days a week in part because of this performance aspect and the energy it takes to produce each tour. Most companies employ multiple guides in order to spread the energy, but for a sole proprietor like Walden, tours could never be a daily thing.
“I do what I do and do the best I can and I’m happy doing it but I would never do seven days a week,” she said. “When you really do and do it right, it’s a performance.”
Being a good guide also requires a fair amount of research and knowledge of the area’s history and culture. The World Food Travel Assocation estimates that 83 percent of food travelers want to learn about the local culture and cuisines of the destinations they visit. According Medina of Savor Oakland, their Jack London tour is in part based in that neighborhood because it was where the city of Oakland got its start due to the shipping and railroad industries. Gourmet Walks’ Nadel says that even though her guides receive training, they need to do their research and know a lot about San Francisco culture and chocolate.
“Not just anyone can do this job. You have to not mind entertaining people for three hours and have a passion for what you’re talking about. I’ve been really lucky and have some great tour guides,” Nadel said.
Ultimately, successful tours, like successful recipes, come down to a few key ingredients, according to Kost. Basic curiosity, a love of food and a love of people are the “main ingredients,” he said. Other intangibles, like business planning can be taught. But although he can help teach people the business fundamentals needed to be a food tour owner, he can’t teach personality or how to understand a customer service oriented business.
“What I can’t teach you is how to be fun, entertaining, empathetic, etc. That’s a personality trait based thing. That’s something you kind of have to bring to the table,” Kost said.