Eugene Kim

About Eugene Kim

Temporarily living in Spain, Eugene is an outdoor, travel, and food enthusiast. She has worked in the eastern U.S., Ecuador, and Spain on sustainable ag/food policy and educational initiatives.

Good Food Tours Rely On Mom-and-Pop Shops

[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]

Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses

The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.

“Hi Maria! How are you doing?  And how’s your dad?”

“Well, he’s better, but….”

Eventually, the food (excellent jamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.

I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)

Key to having successful food tours?  Be a responsible tourism operator.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well

With the rise of a food-centric culture, food-obsessed images on social media, and travelers seeking unique experiences connecting them to local cultures, culinary tourism is becoming an increasingly significant part of global tourism.  Spain has benefited in a big way from the rise in food tourism, being among the top four countries in the world attracting food-driven travelers in recent years.  In 2013, “7.4 million international tourists in 2013” out of a total 60.7 million international tourists to Spain engaged in food tourism in Spain.  That number rose to “8.4 million international tourists,” in 2015, “representing 12.3% of the total [number of international tourists],” according to Matilde Pastora Asian González, Secretary of State for Tourism of Spain.  Asian Gonzalez also noted the “immense potential” of “gastronomy tourism…particularly in rural destinations.”

Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition.  “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise.  However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.

James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.

“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.

“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.

It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking)

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).

For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.

Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians

Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.

A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.

As travelers crisscross a shrunken world, trying to escape the sameness and “culinary homogenization taking hold in many cities around the world,” here are a few reasons why tour operators and travelers would do well to support small and local food and drink businesses.

What mom and pop shops are all about:

  • Authenticity

“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.

Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.

  • History and context

Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war.  We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop.  Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest.  But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there?  Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box. 

An 80+ year old local, family operated tapas and wine bar (and shop)

This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.

  • Cultural introductions and bridge building

Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower left).

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).

And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.

  • Lasting memories

Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds.  An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.

  • Longevity through diversity 

Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity.  It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.”  Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel.  Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies?  Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.

Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.

How To Handle Voluntourism

[On Cape Cod, volunteer painters help out on CARE for the Cape Day. Photo: Judith Selleck]

Voluntourism and Experteering

Volunteer tourism or voluntourism combines travel with service, allowing travelers to use their time and passions and skills towards volunteer opportunities in education, public health, environmental conservation, agriculture, housing development, scientific research, and other arenas in visited communities.  A few examples of voluntourism include assisting with afterschool programs, construction projects, and wildlife studies. More recently, the term “experteering” has become popular in describing a subgroup of voluntourists: Those providing a specific professional skill set (such as coding, graphic design, business plan development, dentistry, etc.) as a volunteer while traveling.

While questions have been raised in recent years about the effectiveness of voluntourism and the potential for doing harm rather than good in the communities it’s intended to serve (see the articles below), there is consensus that voluntourism has the potential to provide positive impacts to both travelers and visited communities alike, creating not just gains in development for local communities, but also fostering cross cultural exchange and appreciation.

As one of the fastest growing trends in travel today according to a July 2014 National Public Radio story, voluntourism has grown rapidly over the past 20 years – to more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion each year, with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations involved in helping to place volunteers.  With the rapidly growing number of organizations and opportunities to choose from, below are some recommendations and tips gleaned from articles and resources (see below) to help in the search for a suitable voluntourism organization and opportunity.

Before you sign up to join a voluntourism program, the following preparation is strongly recommended:

  1. Motivation and Goals: Ask yourself the reasons for going abroad and define your goals.
  2. Skills, Abilities, and Interests: Honestly assess what you have to offer as you consider volunteer opportunities.  Do you have specific skills you plan to contribute (are you planning to experteer)?  Or are you planning to volunteer with an organization that does not require a professional skill set?  Are there abilities or interests you have which may help you to be more effective in certain volunteering scenarios?  For example, are you a good writer? Do you enjoy working with animals? Do you get along well with all types of people? Do you have a green thumb? Are you excited about the prospect of helping at an archeological dig?
  3. Sustainability: When looking into projects to volunteer with, see if the project is addressing a real need or problem, is partnering with the community, and is run by a reputable organization.  Check sites for information on the organization/project and see if there are reviews or evaluations available from volunteers and financial reporting organizations such as Charity Navigator and Go Overseas.com (see below) on how well the program is run and how funds are spent.  Contact the organization with questions about community involvement in the project and how the project will help the community and build capacity and not dependency.
  4. Time and Geography: Consider how much time you can contribute.  As a general rule, the more time you can devote to a project, the better. That is not to say you cannot be effective or make a lasting impact over the course of a short period of time, but the more one is able to be integrated into a local community and develop relationships, the easier it typically is to make a greater impact.  Also assess your preferences (if any) for things like climate (tropical, mediterranean, etc.) and environment (whether the mountains, coast, desert, small village, big city, etc).

Resources and Information

Note—The following listings are also being posted to our Resources and Geotravelers sections. We welcome additions.

  • Websites and Directories

Charity Navigator provides information and ratings on hundreds of charities based on their financial health and transparency, allowing users to vet organizations before making donations, volunteering, and supporting them in other ways.

Go Overseas is a website that provides information and reviews on dozens of volunteer opportunities around the world.

Idealist.org is a clearinghouse for, among other things, global volunteer opportunities.

One World 365 is a travel directory launched in 2007 that provides information on voluntourism opportunities, along with work programs, English teaching certification programs and placements, ecotourism trips,adventure tours, study abroad and language and other learning courses.

VolunTourism.org provides a wide array of resources, from information on several voluntourism organizations to voluntourism news, webcasts, and academic research.

Publications 

Traveler’s Philanthropy: Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving (2009, The Center for Responsible Travel) In this 12 page booklet, a dozen experienced tour operators and tourism organizations engaged in supporting local community projects summarize advice on volunteering and donating.

Articles

Where Does the Money Go When You Volunteer? (July 2015, Natalie Southwick, GoOverseas.com)

As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most? (July 2014, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio)

Is Voluntourism Itself Being Exploited? (April 2014, Daniela Papi, Huffington Post)

10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program (March 2014, Jessie Beck, GoOverseas.com)

Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations (Jan. 2013, Dorinda Elliott, Conde Nast Traveler)

  • Voluntourism Organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit)

Cross-Cultural Solutions is a nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s that provides volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, language lessons, some in-country activities and excursions, and support from local staff.

Earthwatch is a 40+ year old nonprofit that engages volunteers in scientific field research and educational projects worldwide.  Volunteers work alongside researchers on projects in wildlife/ecosystem conservation, climate change, archeology and culture, and ocean health.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, and all related research costs.

Global Citizen Year is a nonprofit started in 2009 that selects fellows (high school graduates) for a “bridge year” of volunteer service before college in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India.  The program offers opportunities in environmental conservation, education, public health, agriculture, or social enterprise and offers financial aid to selected fellows.

Global Volunteers is a nonprofit founded in 1984 that provides various short-term placements for volunteers in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on child health and development.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, local staff support, and supplemental health insurance.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit started in the mid-1970s that is dedicated to creating affordable housing through new construction and renovation.  Both short term and longer term volunteer opportunities are available globally in fields such as construction, finance, resource development and administration.  Program fees include a donation to Habitat and accommodations, food, in-country support, and supplemental health insurance.

Moving Worlds is a B corporation founded in 2011 that facilitates experteering, that is, matches professionals looking to volunteer their skills with nonprofit organizations in need of specific talents.  Moving Worlds bills itself as “a short-term Peace Corps crossed with match.com.”

Projects Abroad is a 20+ year old company that connects volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, both professionals and students, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, and support from local and North America–based staff.