The concept of food tours is new to Taiwan, but the potential is high, especially in conjunction with business conferences.
If there’s one thing on earth that connects people from different backgrounds and gets them talking, it’s food. And there’s always something to talk about, from indulging in a dish that’s an old favorite, to trying something new, or introducing a friend to a different culinary experience.
This universal passion is the reason why chefs are A-List celebrities and why business conferences of any size can rise or fall based on what restaurants are selected for cocktail hours and banquets.
Television programs such as Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, Australia’s Nomad Chef with Jock Zonfrillo, Floyd On from the U.K., and Taiwanese-American chef/restaurateur Eddie Huang’s series Huang’s World have all whetted the world’s collective appetite for food-oriented travel.
Entrepreneurs around the world have heard the call, with food tours now operating in hundreds of cities. It’s an endeavor that’s worked well for young entrepreneurs throughout Asia, with Japan’s Arigato Tours, Hong Kong Foodie Tours, and Un-Tours Shanghai generating a buzz that has made its way around the globe.
Food tours are just ramping up in Taipei in response to growth in popular demand, and a number of companies are taking their place at the table. They run the gamut from group tours operated by international companies such as Viator.com and UrbanAdventures.com to private tours offered by the Taiwan Mandarin Institute and Lion Travel Service. All of these include visits to fabled institutions like the original Din Tai Fung (or the lively and convenient Taipei 101 location) and the Shilin Night Market.
Taipei residents Tina Fong and Mike Lee have perfected the recipe with their company Taipei Eats, which they built up from the Taipei sidewalks. In 2014, a few years after receiving undergraduate degrees from U.S. universities (Fong at the University of California Riverside, and Lee at the University of Colorado in Boulder) and Lee finishing his MBA in Taiwan, the two set up what may be the only independently operated, food tour-focused enterprise in Taiwan.
“In every city I visited after college, I found myself drawn to food tours because I think they offer the best way to see a new city or rediscover a familiar one,” says Fong, who grew up in Hong Kong, but visited Taipei during school summer breaks with her Taiwanese parents. “Food tours offer so much more than just food, giving participants a sense of place and providing a cross-section of different dining experiences without getting caught up in anything too touristy. Launching in Taipei was perfect because it, surprisingly, did not have [a company of this kind] at the time.”
Lee, who left a job in the finance industry, was enthusiastic about helping his longtime friend set up the business infrastructure, website, and third-party ticket sales mechanism. From there, the duo set their sights on convincing shop owners and restaurants to participate. It was important that each four-hour tour represented a cross-section of restaurants and markets that were “authentically” Taipei, but not already on the world’s radar (as is the high-profile Din Tai Fung).
“We approached several prospective partners, and had to spend time explaining to the owners what we wanted to accomplish by having them be a part of our itineraries,” says Fong. “Many of them, especially smaller vendors specializing in particular dishes, were understandably skeptical at first because they had never encountered anything like a food tour. Because many of our stops are in decidedly non-touristy spots, the restaurateurs hadn’t previously encountered many foreign tourists or had to communicate in another language.”
Lee stresses that the key to their successful long-term partnerships with the restaurants, food stands, and markets is consistency. Fong, meanwhile, points out that the bonds of trust are now firmly established as participating business owners, once they become established in a particular itinerary, see Taipei Eats tour guides on a regular basis. As the owners and cooks introduce dishes they are proud of to people beyond their regular customers, they have become increasingly enthusiastic about sharing their stories and backgrounds. Furthermore, Taipei Eats has tours available seven days a week, while general interest companies offer fewer food-focused tours in comparison.
“When it comes to putting a daytime or night market tour together, we aim to find a mix of places – from informal food stalls to nicer sit-down places – that are unique in some way, yet appeal to everybody from first-time visitors to business travelers who come to Taiwan regularly,” continues Fong. “When we did our test runs in the beginning, we got a lot of feedback from guests as to what they enjoyed most and what dishes they were less comfortable with (pig’s blood cake, for example, ended up being a little too much for most guests). We agreed upon including several variations of stinky tofu, as it can be prepared in ways that make it accessible to people from all backgrounds.”
On a warm September afternoon, I joined the daytime XinYi Tour, which kicked off with a sampling of Taiwanese fruits and vegetables at the local wet market, and then continued on to small, family-run restaurants specializing in breakfast pastry with scallions, gua-bao (a Taiwanese take on pulled-pork sandwiches), two kinds of stinky tofu, and soup dumplings. The first half of the tour was then washed down with a sublime Earl Grey boba tea from The Milk Shop.
Our guide Sophia, who exuded energy and enthusiasm, succeeded in keeping us interested and engaged, even in 30º heat. The “trail” she led us down interspersed food stops with historic points of interest and trendy new neighborhoods to explore later in depth, including Songshan Cultural Art Park, created out of repurposed tobacco factory buildings.
“When we look for guides, in addition to a proficiency in English, we want them to be courteous, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable about food,” Fong said in response to my feedback about Sophia. “Guides come to us as we have a well-followed Instagram account, where they see what we do, get what we want to accomplish, and approach us. We also advertise in the English departments at local universities, and then narrow down the choices.”
Kao Chi Shanghai Cuisine & Dim Sum, our sit-down lunch spot, had a very different clientele than the Disney-like Din Tai Fung. The place was packed with multi-generational families as well as trendy young professionals taking advantage of sales at the posh and arty Eslite Spectrum shopping center. Kao Chi has been serving dumplings since 1949, and the various dumplings and other mouthfuls of pure joy coming to our table piping hot were testaments to their expertise.
Several of my fellow food trekkers from the Eastern United States and Australia were squeezing in some R&R after attending business meetings and conferences and before heading home. As a result, it occurred to me that a Taipei Eats tour would be a natural fit for business group retreats. Fong agreed, noting Taipei Eats often accommodates large corporate groups from both local and overseas companies. In one recent case, 60 people attending the same conference were split into eight groups to keep the experience intimate. The starting times for the various groups were staggered, and they hit the same stops on the tour in a different order.
Fong adds that with advance notice, group tours are fully customizable, and meeting planners can pick and choose stops based on food preferences or the dietary needs of those attending. Every bite has the potential to transcend into a food memory. Fong recommends booking a tour at the start of the business trip, or before a conference, as the tour can serve as an icebreaking experience as participants get to interact with locals and one another.
“Doing the tour is an experience that can put visitors at ease, with stops leading to interesting conversations – from what they can learn from their local guide to trying wonderful things they never knew existed,” says Fong. “Just as food brings friends and family together, it can also unite co-workers and strangers in a way that’s convivial and enlightening…a bonding experience.
“We also try to keep the mood light, in that we don’t delve too deeply into history,” she explains. The goal is to give just enough information to provide context while allowing people to enjoy the food and the feel of the neighborhood.