Have you ever taken a food tour? They are a way to walk (and taste) through a city to learn its signature foods and flavors, not to mention some of its history and culture. I've enjoyed food tours in London, Paris, and other delicious cities that required a plane ticket to visit. But food tours happen much closer to home, too — and they're no less fascinating or instructive for happening in your own back yard. My friends Bethia and Andy run a tour company right here in Columbus, Ohio, and I've always admired their work and passion for introducing people to the food coming out of the best immigrant kitchens of Central Ohio.
I've always been curious, too: what does it look like to run a food tour company in a smaller market like Columbus? How does a business like this work, and what created their idea for it in the first place? Come meet Bethia and Andy — today we're talking about the food tours, and later this week we'll peek into their own home kitchen and how they cook when they eat in, not out.
Why Food Tours in Columbus?
I met Andy and Bethia for lunch at one of their favorite taco trucks on the west side of Columbus. I wanted to ask the obvious question: How did you start a food tour business in a town like Columbus? Columbus is by no means small; it's the 15th largest city in the U.S., sandwiched between San Francisco and Charlotte. But the idea of a heartland city — pleasant and thriving, but not a global metropolis — supporting a diverse, thriving food tour business does not, perhaps, seem immediately intuitive.
A Taco Truck Revelation
Bethia is no stranger to large cities; she's originally from London. She came to Columbus to study and to work at The Ohio State University, and that's where she first became interested in immigrant food culture. "I was taking a course on Latin American geography," she told me, "and I needed to do a course project. I already had a food blog, so I wanted a project that was related to both food and Columbus." She had become intrigued by a few local Latin restaurants that weren't the usual Mexican fare (or Mexican-American), and helped by a friend, Jim Ellison, who is now a partner in their Brew Adventures beer tours offshoot, she began exploring taco trucks with her then-boyfriend Andy Dehus (the couple is now married, with a young daughter). The vibrance and diversity of the food in the city's tucked-away taco carts was startling — and a delight.
"We started organizing meet-ups of people who wanted to experience the taco trucks," Bethia said, "and then we did a charity event with a handout that included a map and suggestions of what to order." Eighty people showed up to that first event, and by the time 200 people showed up to the next, Bethia and Andy realized that a kernel of a business idea was forming.
Unexplored Immigrant Kitchens
"Everywhere in Columbus there were immigrant kitchens no one was paying attention to," Andy told me. They began exploring the west and north sides of the city, where much of the city's immigrant population has settled, and they started another blog, alt.eats.columbus, to share their discoveries.
"I got really interested in Somali food," said Bethia. "No one was paying attention to it then." Yelp wasn't huge yet in Columbus (this was 2009). They took a reporter friend and a photographer around to some of their favorite Somali kitchens, and "it blew their minds," Andy said. "They felt the restaurant scene could support tours like they had back in New York, and the idea just took root."
They spent some time doing research on other food tours in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities, and it gave them confidence it was possible to run a tour like this in Columbus.
The Startup: Columbus Food Adventures
In 2010 Bethia and Andy started Columbus Food Adventures, and they made a few savvy decisions from the beginning. They started with several tours — not just one — including the taco truck tour, and one focusing on the up and coming Short North district near campus. They created relationships with popular local chefs, like Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. They made sure that their tours had appeal not just to tourists and visitors, but to locals who wanted to explore their own city.
What does it take to spin up a food tour company? They bought a van, which would not be a necessity for every tour company, but given their focus on food trucks and immigrant kitchens in the corners of Columbus, they knew transportation would be an important component. "Major costs for a food tour business include our website and marketing," explained Bethia, "but one of our largest costs is insurance."
Other than that, it was mostly an investment of time into developing the tours, setting up a ticketing system, and forging relationships with the chefs and restaurants they wanted to include. Bethia made this her full-time job, and the two of them led nearly every tour for the next several years.
Food Tours: A Bridge Between Immigrants & Community
Another smart decision: Bethia and Andy have been careful to craft tours that appeal to people who live in Columbus.
"The tours skew local," they told me. It depends on the time of year and on the tour itself, but they estimated that tours tend to be made up of 60% to 70% local guests, rather than out-of-towners.
This also means that a large part of their business is introducing Ohioans from the suburbs or small towns around Columbus to cuisine that they never imagined was in their own back yard. There are over 40 distinct nationalities of cuisine represented in Columbus, most of them catering to their own community of immigrants. "Eating in some of these kitchens isn't that much different from stepping into a similar place in Mexico," said Andy. "I love that you can have these 'travel' experiences without going far from home," said Bethia.
The couple sees themselves and the business — including their blog —as a bridge between recent immigrants and the rest of the community, teaching and translating from one to the other, and offering support to new businesses. They see themselves in the business of helping form new relationships.
"We love it when we're leading a tour and we see people from a past tour eating in the restaurant," they told me. "Sometimes tour participants become complete regulars in a restaurant that they’ve discovered!"
The Future of a Sustainable Food Tour Business
I was curious about the future of a business like this — does it feel sustainable? Absolutely, they both said. They've brought on extra help to run the tours, especially on the weekends."It feels sustainable," Andy said. "We're firing on all cylinders now — it’s manageable and more flexibility than a more traditional job." They are always looking for new ideas, and new ways to expand the business.
They now offer over 10 tours, plus private events, and they've started a second company, Columbus Brew Adventures, which explores the city's thriving microbreweries.
Personally, I love the way that their business both supports and humanizes the experience of immigrants in Columbus — creating relationships between Somali, Mexican, and other communities that can be perceived as outsiders in a heartland city. But beyond that, their business makes the city where I live a richer, more interesting place, and I've always been grateful for what Bethia and Andy do.
But what do Bethia and Andy cook at home, when they're not out and about at food trucks? The couple just finished a kitchen renovation and I have a peek inside for you tomorrow, plus a little more conversation about exploring immigrant kitchens wherever you are.