by Nancy E. McCarthy
Food tours are a booming culinary tourism trend. These professionally guided circuits of tasting stops are curated to showcase delicious local fare. Tour guests meet chefs and proprietors and learn the backstory of the cuisine, beverages or specialty foods they sample. Some tours offer progressive courses, others may feature drink pairings or have themes. Narratives along the way provide cultural insight and historical points of interest.
“A great way to dive right into the foodie scene of a destination is to experience a food tour,” says Christen Smith of Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, Ontario County’s tourism promotion agency.
When Erik Wolf founded the Portland-based World Food Travel Association in 2003 there were a handful of food tours and he now estimates there are up to 2,000 worldwide. Here’s a tasty roundup of Finger Lakes region food tours, the food lovers operating them, and some of the neighborhood eats, treats and sips featured.
Sampling Syracuse Food Tours
Kate Gillen, a middle school speech-language pathologist from Syracuse, took a Philadelphia food tour and loved the idea of walking, eating and learning in one afternoon. When Gillen finished the tour, she wanted to start one in Syracuse. She was first in the region to bring this hot concept home. After taking a Food Pro Tours workshop in Chicago, she rolled out Sampling Syracuse Food Tours in 2012.
Locals weren’t familiar with the concept back then but visitors were. Now her ratio of tourists to residents is about 50/50. Shane Kost of the Global Food Tourism Association says it’s not surprising to find an equal balance of residents and tourists. “Food tours satiate both the curiosity of a local and the appetite of a visitor.”
When Gillen approached potential tasting partners, many restaurateurs hadn’t heard about food tours but were eager to participate. Three have been with her since inception: Pastabilities (featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), the original Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (voted best BBQ in America on Good Morning America) and Kitty Hoyne’s Irish Pub & Restaurant.
At Hoyne’s, guests sample a traditional Irish dish of cured back bacon and cabbage (and a small pour of Smithwick’s ale). “It’s a delicious combination of ingredients that guests love even though many have never had it prior to the food tour,” says Gillen.
Some sweet new stops on the tour include Cathy’s Cookie Kitchen and Sweet Praxis.
Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours
Self-described “enthusiastic and adventurous eaters” Sarah Barden and Seth Wraight enjoyed their first food tour in Bar Harbor, Maine during their 2015 honeymoon. “We loved the experience of eating a multi-course meal while exploring the past and present of the town,” says Barden. The Ithacan couple thought their hometown would make a perfect tour. There’s a smorgasbord of mouthwatering dining options and that proud claim that Ithaca has more restaurants per capita than New York City.
They launched Ithaca is Foodies in May 2017.
To prepare, the couple attended a Food Tour Pros workshop in Chicago, met with prospective tasting partners, researched local history and practiced presentation. When they curated their tasting route, the iconic Moosewood Restaurant was a must. Founded in 1973, the Moosewood features vegetarian cuisine. It’s award-winning cookbooks helped mainstream vegetarian cooking into home kitchens. A fun history lesson along the way includes a visit to the former Platt & Colt Pharmacy site where the ice cream sundae was invented in 1892. The inaugural version featured vanilla ice cream, cherry syrup and a candied cherry. Later in the tour, guests enjoy handmade ice cream at Sweet Melissa’s.
Last summer their tour was featured in USA Today’s “Sip, Stroll, and Snack: 10 Must-Try Food Tours in North America” alongside far flung tours in Santa Fe, Montreal and even Juneau, Alaska!
This year they rolled out the Science of Taste, a new winter tour highlighting our five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Stops include Latin American cuisine at Bickering Twins Restaurant and international food truck fare at Luna Inspired Street Food.
Ithacans comprise about 30 percent of attendees. Tourists, parents and students at Cornell and Ithaca College plus day trippers from Rochester, Syracuse, Owego and Binghamton, are sprinkled into the mix.
Finger Lakes Food Tours: Canandaigua
After enjoying food tours in Florida and the Midwest, Canandaigua resident Suzanne Wright thought a tour would be popular in her own community. In June 2015, Wright launched Finger Lakes Food Tours (FLFT) featuring six downtown restaurants and specialty shops. “There’s nothing like getting a local’s perspective on food, culture and history,” says Christen Smith of Finger Lakes Visitors Connection.
Wright was previously a travel concierge so operating a food tour was a natural fit. Before FLFT went live she trained with Food Tour Pros in Chicago to learn the business.
One tour customer was Marcia Patitucci Waffner visiting Canandaigua with friends in 2018. An “absolutely 110 percent” foodie, Waffner owns a cooking business and takes Tompkins Cortland Community College students to Italy for culinary studies. When Waffner’s friend signed them up for the Finger Lakes Food Tour she yawned (to herself) and thought “How nice, something to do.” Her benchmark was high so it would take a lot to impress Waffner.
She wound up eating her words. “I loved it from start to finish,” Waffner writes by email. “It was memorable and, as I write this, it brings pleasure to recall the tastes and sites, the history provided as well as the excellent tastings.”
Waffner enjoyed every stop, starting with the fresh authentic Mexican cuisine at Rio Tomatlán. Flavors Indian restaurant is another international tasting stop.
This September, FLFT is literally going international with a customized tour package to eat, explore and enjoy Ireland. “Every detail of this excursion has been crafted for the ardent foodie and traveler in mind,” says Wright who will escort the group. She partnered with Whitaker & DePrez Travel Partners in Rochester to develop the itinerary.
There may be more delicious destinations in the future.
Flower City Food Tours: Pittsford and Rochester
In 2016, Cheri Davenport of Pittsford was inspired to form Flower City Food Tours after she took her first tour in Carmel, California. “I had such a great time and was looking for something to do as a new empty nester,” says Davenport who has a marketing and advertising background. She thought it would be a fun concept to bring back to Rochester. “We have such wonderful neighborhoods with great food and specialty shops.”
Under the Flower City umbrella, Pittsford Food Tours debuted in April 2017 followed by Park Avenue Food Tours and Neighborhood of the Arts Food Tours in Rochester. Davenport is one of the newer tour operators in the region but already the largest offering five tours in three historic neighborhoods. She may add more.
Her pre-tour preparation was “walking, talking and eating.” Davenport explored areas that would offer a scrumptious culinary journey within a reasonable walking distance and dug into neighborhood histories. Then she met with owners to establish tasting locations.
“The tasting partners who have been with us from the beginning are very important,” says Davenport. “We are happy to stay loyal to each and every one of them.” She’s grateful for their enthusiasm from the get-go.
ROAM Café on Park Avenue is a stop on two different Park Ave Food Tours. Guests are served arancini, ROAM’s signature appetizer, paired with wine or a seasonal craft cocktail. Arancini is a rice risotto ball with a mozzarella center, rolled in bread crumbs, fried and tossed with blush sauce.
“The tours have been great exposure for us,” says owner Drew Nye. “Guests visit us on the tour and then come back for the full ROAM experience.”
Davenport and six other tour operators (including Ithaca is Foodies and Sampling Syracuse) formed the Upstate New York Food Tour Trail. After your first tour, you receive a tantalizing incentive: a 10-percent discount to try another one.
Tours vs. Trails
So what’s the difference between them?
A food tour requires a ticket and is a pre-planned, walkable circuit of tasting stops. A tour guide shepherds a group to each location offering narratives along the way. Restaurant or specialty shop owners expect tour guests to arrive at specific times. They have food and drink ready to sample.
A food trail is self-guided, locations are spread out and transportation is generally necessary to get from place to place. You can explore at your own pace and purchase meals, snacks, produce, libations or specialty items that appeal to you. Many food trails have themes such as the Finger Lakes Sweet Treat Trail in Cayuga County, Wayne County Apple Trail or the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail.
To find the abundant food and drink experiences offered in all 14 Finger Lakes counties, visit the Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council website: fingerlakestravelny.com