While we all like to think we know our hometowns inside and out, there are few things as thrilling in the urban landscape as suddenly discovering a new favorite restaurant, bar, or shop that had previously slipped by unnoticed. It adds a vibrance to the familiar, reminding us not to get too set in our ways. Edible Excursions, a food and cocktail tour company that’s been leading its patrons into the epicurean nooks and crannies of the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 12 years, has succeeded in bottling that thrill and sharing it with thousands of adventurous locals and visitors alike.
Crafting a Culinary Experience
Lisa Rogovin, the founder of Edible Excursions, found herself falling into the culinary tour industry more or less on the whim of a client. While working in advertising sales for a magazine, she was approached by the General Manager of the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco.
“I had gotten back from a vacation in Mexico, and I had gone on a food tour with this woman who took me to a market and then back to her house to cook a meal. It was a fantastic experience. The hotel manager told me he loved the idea and asked me to put together a similar experience for his guests, which is how it all started back in 2004.”
Back then, food tours were something of a rarity. As far as Lisa could tell, she initially had no more than two competitors in San Francisco and only a handful around the entire country. “It was a really unique opportunity,” she said. “Most of the newer tour companies have had to break into a much more saturated market.”
From those roots at the Four Seasons, Edible Excursions steadily grew into its own business. Lisa set out to recruit the best Bay Area food experts she could find to help her lead the tours. “I’ve always valued enthusiasm more than anything in our tour guides. It’s one thing to know your stuff, but it’s another thing entirely to be excited to share it with the general public. That’s the first thing we look for.”
From Food to Booze
As Lisa watched the craft cocktail and spirits scene exploding over the last decade, she knew it was only a matter of time before Edible Excursions branched out into the world of booze. Enter Quinn Sweeney, one of Lisa’s food tour guides who’s had a penchant for great drinks for most of his career.
“My background is in writing about cocktails, so when I started working for Edible Excursions, it was just a few months before I started thinking, how about a cocktail tour? And after bugging her enough, Lisa eventually gave in,” he laughed.
“It wasn’t a hard sell at all,” she said. “I think that cocktails are a lot like food. The company’s focus is on food tours, but experiencing what the local food scene is all about has become so much about cocktails as well. The way a mixologist crafts cocktails is a lot like how a chef will craft his food, taking days to prepare ingredients. Our customers had no problem buying right into the idea of a cocktail tour.”
“It’s really fun, because I’ve built all these connections in the San Francisco bar industry over the years,” Quinn continued. “It was nice to be able to enter into a new partnership with friends and help bring them exposure, and for them to hook me up with a place to give a fun tour. It was a really natural progression of bringing together what we were doing and what I was doing with my various side projects.”
Steeped in San Francisco Cocktail History
The cocktail tours are generally flexible, stopping at any number of local hotspots depending on what the group is interested in. “The one I did this week, for example, we went to Cantina, Royale, Rx, and Rye, so it was intentionally designed to have progressively shorter walks between bars,” Quinn said with a laugh. “We try to get a variety of styles, as well as a big variety of personalities.
“It always varies depending on who’s working a given night, but I feel like a lot of our bars tend to draw a staff that’s similar to whoever’s running the show. You get a bunch of different characters at different bars, which is really fun. You have people like Kevin Diedrich, who brought his whole team along with him when he took over Cantina, and he’s all about service. Then you have the people at Rye who are just giant nerds about their cocktails, because the staff get to come up with the drinks. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and they love to show off. I think it’s really nice to get as much variety in there as possible.”
San Francisco is a city that’s steeped in cocktail history, and Edible Excursions makes a point of introducing their guests to as much of it as possible. “Back when Cantina was under its original ownership, for example, we’d always focus on the Pisco Punch. It’s a drink with incredible San Francisco history, going back to the Gold Rush era when it was created here.
“The ones at Cantina were made with a pisco that was formulated by one of their owners, which led to so many great stories. You can tell people about the Bank Exchange Saloon, and how Mark Twain drank at the bar where the Pisco Punch was invented and wrote about it, and then transition into telling them that the base spirit was made by the guy behind the bar. And then you can talk about how that pisco won a bunch of gold medals and ticked off a bunch of Peruvians.”
A Hands-On Cocktail Tour
One of the truly unique elements of Quinn’s cocktail tour is that he introduces his guests to a process that’s central to craft cocktails: making your own bitters. At the first stop of the night, he guides his group through a class that’s designed to give them an overview of how bitters are formulated.
“It’s basically just mixing tinctures, since the process of making bitters from scratch takes weeks,” he said. “It’s more of a blending class, but they get some insight about how to take some weird roots and Everclear and go make the real deal at home. At the end of the class everyone gets to customize a little bottle to take with them.”
These touches are central to Edible Excursion’s business. Somewhat surprisingly, their tours aren’t focused primarily on people who are new to the Bay Area or just here on vacation. “The vast majority of our customers are locals,” Lisa said. “We definitely love having visitors, but we structure our tours to be appealing to people who live in the area. We want to help them discover the really excellent food and drinks that are right in their backyard, and give them some insight into that world that they might not otherwise get to see.”
Clearly, there’s plenty of demand for this kind of hyper-local exploration. Though Edible Excursions currently only leads cocktail tours in San Francisco, their food tours have been thriving all over the Bay Area for more than a decade. In a region known worldwide for its epicureanism, Lisa and her team seem to have tapped into a truly unique experience.
“It’s what we love to do,” she told us with a smile. “If we can get new people excited about what’s going on in their city, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Feature Photo: Will Shenton
Other Photos: Mitch Maher for Edible Excursions