By now, most of us know one of the biggest keys to understanding any culture is getting to know its food.
The farms, restaurants, and markets of any given city shed light on people’s priorities, values, and way of life — food provides flavour in both the literal and figurative sense. No one understands this more clearly than Karen Anderson, the force behind Alberta Food Tours, which has been giving visitors to our province a taste of what we’re all about for a decade.
“There’s a savvy kind of person who takes a food tour whenever they land in a new place,” Anderson says. “Because they know with us they’re going to learn about art, history, culture, and get lots of food recommendations.”
Anderson herself fell in love with the concept of food tours when she and her husband were briefly living in Boston in the early ‘90s. Anderson was doing some studies related to her first career in nursing, and she signed up for a tour of the city’s Italian district so she could meet some people and get a handle on where to eat in town. While it was another 15 years before she would start to turn food tours into a business of her own, the power of that tour stuck with her.
Anderson was born to a family of fishermen and gardeners in New Brunswick, so food and food production has always been near and dear to her heart. By 2006 she felt like she’d done all she could with nursing and had translated her love of food into writing and broadcast media gigs.
She had also started offering personalized farmers’ market tours as auction items at her son’s school fundraisers, and realized that the friendly, compassionate demeanor and generous sense of humour that made her a great nurse, also made her an excellent food guide. She took out a free ad in a local magazine, and advertised her very first Calgary food tour. While she had to pad early tours with friends and family, paying customers eventually started signing up.
That first year Anderson did 10 tours for 131 guests. Last year, she did 100 tours for more than 1,000 guests.
“My whole business approach is about baby steps,” Anderson says. “I’m a mompreneur — I grew my business while raising my child. So many people in business are in a hurry, but if you can stick it out and do things more slowly, people see your commitment, and your relationships are authentic. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done it slowly.”
Which is why, a decade after starting her business, Anderson has transformed Calgary Food Tours into Alberta Food Tours. Anderson launched Canmore tours at the end of June, with Edmonton set to get rolling in the fall.
As with everything she does, Anderson only expanded when she was able to find partners who are as dedicated to the food community as she is. She brought on her longtime friend Callandra Caulfield (who is also the force behind Canmore Uncorked) to lead the Canmore tours, and also act as Alberta Food Tours Operations Manager. In Edmonton, Anderson is relying on solid foodies like Edmonton Journal writer Liane Faulder and chef Cindy Lazarenko to help her represent the brand.
Of course, things continue on in Calgary stronger than ever — with six different tours currently on the go (ranging from a restaurant tour of Inglewood to an art and food tour in the Designer District), Anderson still leads some herself and also employs local food luminaries like Chef Judy Wood and filmmaker Naddine Madell-Morgan to lead groups. Anderson says that her guests are made up of about half locals wanting to learn more about their own cities and half out-of-towners — thanks in part to some solid relationships she’s formed with local tourism bureaus.
With the expansion, Anderson is keen to continue to tell stories of food. While she has worked hard to build Alberta as a viable business and takes her professional relationships with the tourism boards, food vendors, and the food tour industry at large, very seriously (Anderson is certified with Food Tour Pros, a professional development organization for food tour operators), she’s ultimately driven by her connections to community and her instincts as a writer to continue to share the story of what fuels and nourishes Albertans.
“We need to tell an Alberta story,” she says. “Every time I travel, I’m reminded that the dedication of our growers and our chefs is world class. We have some really unique things here.”