When you travel to Chicago these days, there’s a good chance that taking a food tour is somewhere on your list of possible adventures. Either you know someone who’s taken a food tour, you’ve seen the ads online, or you’ve seen them recommended on a trip planning website or two.
It was a very different story ten years ago when Shane Kost started Chicago Food Planet Food Tours. At that time there weren’t any food tours in Chicago and the idea of spending an afternoon tasting your way through a neighborhood was pretty foreign to most people.
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In the past ten years, food tours have become much more common in Chicago and around the country, with 25 different food tour companies operating in Chicago alone. Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Shane to talk about what it takes to grow a food tour business and change how people see Chicago.
People, Food, and Travel
When I met Shane at Chicago Food Planet’s Wicker Park office, he was putting the final touches on the first Global Food Tourism Conference that he was organizing later that week in Chicago.
He started Chicago Food Planet in 2006 after figuring out that he didn’t like working in corporate America, because of the culture. The way he tells it, he became a business owner by necessity after a friend told him he was “unemployable” because the corporate jobs weren’t what he wanted or needed to be doing.
After starting and selling a couple of businesses, including a seasonal lighting business, Shane found that he really liked the idea of seasonal business ownership, because he could travel during the off-season. An avid traveler he recently spent five off-seasons riding his motorcycle from Chicago to the tip of South America.
After selling the lighting business, he spent time thinking about what he wanted to do next. “I really wanted to focus on what I’m passionate about, and I thought long and hard, and three words kept surfacing over and over people, food, and travel.”
When he started his food tour company, which at the time was called Near North Food Tours, it was the only food tour in Chicago. According to Shane, the landscape was completely different ten years ago with people in the U.S. still learning from Europe in terms of thinking about walking tours as something to do when they were traveling.
All the top tours at the time were what he calls the three Bs – bike, bus, and boat. There weren’t a lot of successful walking tours, and he didn’t want to start one with any of the three Bs, because of the high overhead and because he would end up being in the bus, bike, or boat business.
The focus on food made sense because he thought it was the type of thing that people would connect with and be enough of a draw to convince people to spend time walking.
A Focus on Off the Beaten Path Neighborhoods
When he started, he wanted to focus on off the beaten path neighborhoods. “I felt that celebrating downtown was a little redundant. Everybody is already down there, and people don’t live down there… I wanted to celebrate where I live.”
He sees the tours as a partnership between Chicago Food Planet and the vendors, which include shops and restaurants. Each of their four tours is between two to three and half hours long, and covers about a mile in distance, which they’ve found through trial and error is about the right amount of time and distance for people to cover and stay engaged.
Since Chicago Food Planet pays for all the food people eat on the tours, over a $1 million in the last nine years, the tours are a direct source of revenue that also provides exposure and helps to validate the vendors’ businesses.
The vendors I’ve talked to were very positive about their experience being on a tour. The one challenge they mentioned was making sure they staff up on tours days to handle the extra traffic.
As Matt from Bercos Popcorn said “food tours done right are fantastic and done wrong leave the customer exceptionally disappointed. People who come to Chicago can do all of the ‘touristy’ stuff in a day and a half. The food tours Shane has put together give people a chance to see the real Chicago both from a culinary and visual perspective. The way the world is now, Michigan Ave is ubiquitous and vanilla.”
When I ask Shane how he picks which places end up on the tours, you can tell he gets asked this question all time, referring to it as the million-dollar question. His answer is a bit simplistic but makes sense. He turns the question around and asks if he was coming to your town where would you send him.
And as much as everyone or at least me wants the answer to be something more than it is, for there to be a secret, for the locations to come from a deeper culinary wisdom, it’s true, if you really like food and spend any time trying places around your hometown, you could easily list off five or six places that you’d recommend to friends or family coming into town. Of course listing off a few places to try is very different than giving a bang-up tour, which is part of why the guides are so important.
It’s All About the Guides
At the heart of the experience are the tour guides. According to Shane the three things that make a great tour are the tour guide, an emotional connection, and a sense of accomplishment.
“You can take a tour on a subject matter you have no interest in and you can have a phenomenal time because of the tour guide. Conversely, you can take a tour on a subject matter you’re really interested in, like food, and have a terrible time because of the tour guide.”
Chicago Food Planet tour guides come from a variety of backgrounds, including yoga instructors, teachers, musicians, dieticians, actors, comedians, etc. During the high season, they will run 30 to 40 tours a week and will end up giving around 20,000 tours this year.
A majority of the tour guides are part-time and have built the job into their lives. According to Shane a part of the appeal is the seasonal nature of the work, which provides the guides with the option to travel and work at other things during the off-season. Something that is reflected in the low turnover rate among their guides, which is usually less than 10 to 15 percent a year.
A part of their success and a reason for the low turnover is the fairly extensive process people go through to become a tour guide. Chicago Food Planet has their own training program that Shane describes as “fairly rigid,” with only 60 percent of the people who start moving on to become tour guides.
Want to Run a Food Tour
When you talk with Shane, it doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s a serial entrepreneur. To help other people learn how to start and run food tours in their own cities, he took what he learned and started Food Tour Pros. The idea for Food Tour Pros came out of all the questions he was getting from people asking him for advice about starting their own food tours.
The school provides two and three-day courses to help people learn how to start and run their own food tour businesses. The company currently has over 300 customers from 26 countries and provides a range of additional services, like website support, systems, and coaching. They’ll even come out for a walk-through with people before their tours go live.
The work he’s been doing with Food Tour Pros helped lead him to organize the first Global Food Tourism Conference in Chicago. The conference was designed to provide a platform for people in the food tourism industry to learn from each other and to network. He has high hopes that the conference can help the food tourism industry grow.
It’s an Internet Business
One of the most interesting things Shane said is that he kept referring to Chicago Food Planet as an internet business that provides experiences for three hours at a time. What was interesting about his comments was what it said about how people travel these days and the role the internet plays in the travel industry.
This is where all those Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews really matter because they are an important source of information when people are looking for ideas and deciding between the hundreds of options they have when they go somewhere.
Having reached their ten-year anniversary Chicago Food Planet is deep in the planning process for the organization’s next ten years. When I ask Shane where he would like to be and where he would like the company to be in ten years, he talks about how much has changed and says “I believe food tours are a trend, because when is the last time somebody told you they don’t like food. When was the last time someone’s interest in food went down? It doesn’t; it only gets bigger and better.”
He went on to say “What I think is fascinating is the food revolution right now and what’s going to happen over the next ten years… it’s not in Chicago, LA, or New York it’s in St. Louis, it’s in Fredrick, Maryland, it’s in Des Moines, Iowa…. And when that revolution goes to the smaller markets the next ten years is just going to be massive for food tourism and especially food tours.” And you can bet that Shane and Chicago Food Planet are hoping to be right in the middle of it all.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Food Planet