Lauren Aloise’s Devour Food Tours, Spain
By Jessica Benavides Canepa
Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 20 | Sept/Oct 2015
On a particularly sweltering summer evening in Madrid, a small group gathered by the grill of a tiny restaurant renowned for just one dish: a hand-selected, bite-sized morsel of mushroom perfection. The cook in charge of grilling this tasty tapa confessed he had no idea how many champiñones had crossed his meticulous inspection over the years, then briefly explains how each piece was selected based on size and freshness. Following the demonstration, the group is eager to taste the tapas paired with an earlier discovery: tinto de verano – a popular summer drink consisting of red table wine and fizzy water.
Meanwhile, in the bohemian Gracia district of Barcelona, a local restaurant owner shows visitors how to make their own pa amb tomàquet – a simple Catalan recipe consisting of rustic bread generously slathered with ripe tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. The eatery is run by a husband-and-wife duo that have, in just a few short years, built up a community of loyal clientele. Impressive, considering they are situated far from any of the city’s main tourist attractions.
Both scenarios are authentic experiences offered by Devour Food Tours, a Spain-based tour company founded by American expat, Lauren Aloise.
Growing up in a typical Italian-American family, Lauren’s life has always revolved around food.
“Four-hour long homemade meals were the norm,” she recalls. From the age of 12, she dreamed of becoming a chef. By 15, she worked in restaurants on jobs ranging from bartending to waitressing to food prep.
While working towards her business degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Lauren was certain that she would go to culinary school upon graduation. Instead, her second passion, travel, got the upper hand; Lauren found a program to teach English in Seville, Spain.
“I thought it would be a great way to perfect my Spanish and learn as much as possible about the local cuisine,” she explains.
Just a week after arriving in Seville, an unexpected encounter changed her life’s course for good; Lauren met Alejandro, her future husband (and Devour Food Tours co-founder who now works primarily in a consultant/support capacity while running his own IT business). During her time in the Andalusian capital city, Lauren started a food blog called ‘Spanish Sabores’ to document her regional travels and culinary experiences. She credits the blog as her ‘lifesaver’ following a difficult first year in Spain, where she felt completely uninspired by her teaching job. She reflects, “I think this sentiment is common among many expats working in a field that isn’t necessarily their background.”
She enjoyed the writing, but not the solitude. “I’d been blogging and freelance-writing for nearly a year, but [in the past] I had always worked in close contact with people, and I missed that!” she admits. Right before their wedding, the newlyweds quit their jobs and soon after spent three months in the U.S. trying to figure out their next move, eventually returning to Spain with the dream of starting their own (separate) businesses.
So when she stumbled upon another city’s food tour company online, she had an epiphany: “[Starting my own] food tour was the perfect solution; it combines everything I’ve ever done and loved.” An open mind and a ton of research later – two things Lauren believes are essential to expat relocation, regardless of the sector – Madrid Food Tours launched in 2012.
Lauren immediately incorporated her business background into nurturing the fledgling company. She was keenly aware that culinary tourism is one of the fastest-growing tourism segments: “When you turn on the TV in the U.S., it seems like every new show is cooking-related!” To Lauren, food is but a small part of the equation. The tours are based on Spain’s rich history and culinary culture, but the most important element is the people – the guides, the local proprietors and suppliers that make the tours unique, enriching experiences.
At least this seems to be the common consensus among fans of the company; in just three years, it has grown from a small Madrid tapas tour run by Lauren herself to a full-fledged company, staffed by a team of dedicated food lovers, offering savory options in Barcelona, Seville and Malaga. Expansion, however notable, isn’t always the best indicator of actual, real-world success, as it often requires bank loans or private investors. Physical proof has come in the form of the coveted Certificate of Excellence from the consumer review site Trip Advisor, awarded to Devour Food Tours earlier this year.
Lauren believes that the company’s firm commitment to responsible tourism has been a key ingredient in achieving trust and cooperation with the local partners they reach out to. “We only work with small businesses, absolutely no chains!” she continues, “We pay the suppliers the full price for whatever we order from them and our guides are well-compensated for their work.”
When looking for new suppliers, the team does extensive online research followed by scouting trips consisting of endless tasting, evaluating and talking to the shop owners. “Whenever possible, we prefer places where the owners are present, as this adds a lot to the experience,” she says.
Economically, partners benefit further from free promotion on all Devour Tours social media channels – a practice considered risky by some who are certain that people will simply jot the location names down and explore them on their own, but Lauren just shrugs it off: “I love supporting our partners.” Confident in her team’s hard work of developing relationships with suppliers, she adds, “If someone were to do our tours on their own, they’d miss 75% of the experience.”
When asked about the future of Devour Food Tours and the possibility of expanding to other branches of tourism, Lauren is quick to confirm that, whatever direction further expansion might take them, small businesses will always remain the heart and soul of the company.
She recalls a ‘locals only’ Barcelona bodega tucked away in a hidden corner of the city. At first, Devour Food Tours was hesitant to work with this supplier in fear that their decades-old routines might be disrupted. But they needn’t have worried; the shop has become a tour highlight for both the owners and visitors. “We’ve become a part of the day that they look forward to; they chat with our guests, and one of the older men, Ponz, often serenades the group by singing a full-on ballad.” These types of interactions make Lauren smile. “I love bridging the gap between travelers and locals.”
Meet Devour Food Tours Team Members
Expat Story: American-born Renée has lived in Spain since 2009, first in Madrid for a few years before settling down in Barcelona. At first, she was uncertain what direction her life would take but a desire to learn Spanish and locally-based family members made Spain an ideal place to figure things out.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d work in the tourism industry,” she says, “[But] I’ve always been the type of traveler who appreciates local flavor, getting off the beaten path… that’s what’s made this job so interesting for me!”
Food Connection: An admitted food addict, Renée is particularly fond of Spanish cuisine, crediting it with her introduction to the wonderful world of cooking. “I helped out in the kitchen a lot as a child – but most of what I know came from moving to Spain and living right above a giant refrigerator – el mercado!”
Expat Blues: She confesses that despite the obvious rewards, there are a lot of challenges faced while living abroad – starting with the daunting decision to live far away from the people (and country) she loves. Renée alleviates her occasional bouts of loneliness by going out and meeting new people. “[For me], Barcelona is the perfect city; it has the culture of a big city without the overwhelming size.”
Expat Story: New Zealander James confesses that the main motivator for his move to France a decade ago was love. Well, that was the idea anyway. In Toulouse he met his wife, a Spaniard.
“We lived in Madrid for a while, then moved back to New Zealand but always knew we’d return to Spain.” The couple moved back in 2009 and James decided to quit his advertising career to try his luck at travel journalism.
“Being in a new country, I’d figured it was the perfect time to reinvent myself,” he says. His Spain-focused writing led to tours. “I love working in Spain; I’m fascinated with this gorgeous, exciting and complicated country.”
Food Connection: As a child, James and his family moved countries a lot due to his father’s work. “My mother’s cooking was always a wonderful blend of different flavors and cultures,” he recalls. Apart from the great taste, James firmly believes Spanish cuisine offers visitors an interesting way to relate to the local history.
Expat Blues: James’s native country is so far away that he’s seldom able to travel home for a visit. “I do miss my family,” he admits. “But I feel lucky that I [rarely] get the blues. In fact, I feel more at home in Spain than in New Zealand.”
For more information and bookings, visit www.devourspain.com.
[Photography courtesy of Jennifer Malmberg, Courtney Likkel and Katarina Pajunen]
The Sept/Oct 2015 issue of Global Living Magazine is FREE in our app!
If you enjoyed this article, please SHARE it with your friends, fellow expats & international networks!