July 15, 2011
Food tours can be good for businesses and neighborhoods

The Sacramento food and dining scene has been credited with bringing new energy to Sacramento's urban core. Just think of all the restaurants that did not exist a decade ago and just recall how easy it was to find a parking spot in midtown or downtown back then.

Now comes the ripple effect, and it, too, is bringing positive energy to neighborhoods - and there's plenty of potential and opportunity ahead. One of the best examples of this is a new business called Local Roots Food Tours operated by Lisa Armstrong, a former private chef who moved to the area from Indiana 12 years ago. The tours are not only drawing great crowds, they're a positive force in the downtown neighborhoods of Alkali Flats and Mansion Flats.

Several days a week, a dozen or more folks take part in a three-hour guided tour that stops at places like Grange Restaurant, Sugar and Spice Specialty Desserts and Sampino's Towne Foods. They sample the food, hear stories about the businesses and, as they're walking along the tree-lined streets of the city's oldest neighborhoods, learn plenty about local history.

I think of these tours as a win-win-win. First, Local Roots Tours has emerged as a viable business. I've seen the tours in action and have been impressed by how popular they are with tourists and locals alike. Second, the eateries on the tour are winning - they get to meet potential new customers and, if the food and service hit their mark, lure some of these folks back as regular or occasional customers.

Third, the neighborhood is benefiting, too. The image of Alkali Flats/Mansion Flats is not necessarily all positive for those who simply drive by. Thanks to the disproportionate number of social services and charities devoted to the poor in the area, there is also a disproportionate number of transients passing through or hanging around. That's mostly what motorists see as they make their way into the city on 12th Street or out to the 'burbs on 16th Street. But those in the food tours are getting a different, more realistic and more positive impression - the streets are peaceful, safe and pleasant. Folks who live in the area know this and these residents are apparently happy that Armstrong's food tours are spreading that message.

Says Armstrong: "I was really surprised when I started these tours because I didn't know how the locals would feel. The response has been phenomenal."

Some who knew the neighborhoods only from a distance had expressed concerns about safety, but Armstrong says participants have felt completely at ease and there have been no incidents or awkward encounters.

"Everyone is just amazed," she said.

The tours make arrangements with the participating eateries to have the food ready. Armstrong pays for the food and the advertising, negotiating a price for a 3 or 4-ounce portion at each stop. The cost to the tour participants is $58.

Michael Sampino of Sampino's Towne Foods (where I occasionally stop in for an excellent sandwich, my favorite being the "Rustique") says he enjoys meeting the tour participants and showing off the excellent Italian food. He has noticed that many have returned to eat. I was there for lunch one day when a tour group came in and saw how enthusiastic they were about it all.

The tours started around the same time Sugar and Spice Specialty Desserts opened its retail bakery several months ago at the corner of 12th and F streets. The tours have helped her business.

"I love it. You already get people who love food. So, anyone who is already interested in food and wants to hear about what you're going to say, it's a great audience," Jones said.

She added with a laugh: "More food tours, please."

Armstrong's business is going so well that she will soon expand to include a separate midtown tour. She has hired her first tour guide. When she started, restaurants and other eateries were reluctant or skeptical about being involved. Now, when they see the potential, businesses would be smart to seek out Armstrong to see if she can include them.

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