George Bernard Shaw said, “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them. ” That pretty much sums up Lauren Aloise, a 26 year old American who started her own food tour business in Madrid after she decided that teaching English was not her bag.
Lauren’s career in food started when she was 16, working in kitchens and restaurants in Massachusetts. Later, she pursued a business degree with a focus on hospitality and tourism where she learned more about cooking, different tourism models and how to run a restaurant.
How can I tie food into my life again?
“But then I moved to Spain to teach English for supposedly a year and ended up staying as I met my Spanish husband,” Lauren says. “So in the meantime I’m thinking, ‘Well, how can I tie food into my life again?’”
She thought about working at restaurants but the hours and salary weren’t desirable in Spain. Culinary school was prohibitively expensive and far. “I started blogging, and I really like food blogging and recipe blogging. It’s going really well but I realized that I couldn’t be at home all day either so that’s why I thought, ‘Ok, let’s take this to the next step. What can I do?’
“So finally, I just thought, ‘Why not a food tour?’ I’d seen it work in other cities and I thought, ‘Well, Madrid doesn’t really have anything quite like that yet.’ So I did my research and I kind of made a plan and it’s been great so far. It all kind of prepared me for this type of job.” A job, she jokes, which was made for her without her knowing it.
Madrid Food Tour was up and running in July 2012 after one month of paperwork thanks to a gestor she hired at the urging of some members of The GuiriPreneurs, a group that helps expat entrepreneurs get their business ideas off the ground.
Lauren set up Madrid Food Tour as an autónoma, but making the decision to be self-employed or to become a limited liability company “was, and still is, kind of a big concern,” Lauren says. “But for the time being, I’m in a good position.”
Madrid Food Tour gave its first tours in the summer of 2012. “I just put up the website to see what would happen. In the first month, I gave maybe like 5 or 6 tours. So it was kind of an immediate response which confirmed the thought that this was missing in Madrid.”
The website brings in a lot of direct customers who search for food tours in Madrid. Lauren says that her listing on TripAdvisor, where Madrid Food Tour ranks 11th out of 80 activities to do in Madrid and garners nearly all 5 star reviews is “a really big source of clients” as well.
Recently, Lauren was featured in a CNN Travel article “How Spain is trying to save their tourism industry” which helped to cement her as an authority in the food tour business.
Lauren designed her tours to be more thematic and have a lot more variety compared to the competition. In addition to the Signature Tasting Tour, Madrid Food Tour launched the Tapas and History tour which is a tapas tour that mixes in a history element. The guide is local food and travel writer James Blick, who is also a history buff. “He knows Madrid’s history really well. So you’re getting the tapas part of the tour but you’re also getting an interesting and fun history lesson as well.”
Another thing that sets Madrid Food Tour apart is that the tours are smaller. “A lot of the other companies will go with up to 12 people. We max out at 6,” Lauren explains.
“A lot of the places we go are small, and to go with 10 people isn’t realistic; it would not be a fun experience. To look for places that are bigger, I think you’re compromising a bit of the quality sometimes or just the fun of going into a bar that you would have never otherwise gone into filled with madrileños. And you feel comfortable because you’re with your guide but alone, you probably wouldn’t have gone in.”
Lauren says that she has a friendly relationship with most of the restaurants she includes in her tours but that when it comes to making a business relationship with them, she found that they “are kind of a little closed minded.”
In the center, it’s kind of like they’re stuck in their ways.
Lauren doesn’t sacrifice the places that she includes on her tours just to find someone who will give her a deal though. “Instead, I’ve accepted that that’s probably not going to happen in the center as much but just to have a nice relationship with the people where they say ‘Hello Lauren! How are you?’ and the people like to see that they know my name and that they treat us really nicely and that they’re very attentive. So that’s been nice.
“I think when I start doing some tours outside of the center, it will be interesting and exciting to see what types of things we could get together and offer as an arrangement. I think the people in the other neighborhoods will be a little more open minded to maybe making a special menu for the tours. Not necessarily a discount. Just something a little different. But in the center, it’s kind of like they’re stuck in their ways.”
Lauren admits that one of the struggles she encountered is finding guides for Madrid Food Tour. “It really has to be a mix of passion and interest in food and wine, good language skills in both English and Spanish, and a knowledge of Madrid and of Spanish culture. To find all that plus availability, since it isn’t a full time job for the guides that we hire, it’s been a bit difficult.”
The numerous protests in Madrid over austerity measures have also presented a problem for Lauren’s food tour business. “That’s actually quite difficult to work around. We’ve had to reroute, we’ve had to use backups because of the protests. It’s not a comfortable feeling when you’re on a tour and people are not feeling safe and you have to reassure them that they are safe. That’s frustrating.”
Lauren knows that her business is all about relationships. Even when describing her business set up she says, “I have some great guys who are working with me very, very closely and it’s not a typical structure where one person is the ruler of the world.” So when it comes to advice for other would-be expat entrepreneurs in Madrid, it’s no surprise that her advice is to network.
“My primary advice is to just go out and do it because lots of people think that it’s a lot more difficult than it actually is. You don’t have to do it all on your own. Find a good gestor. Go to The GuiriPreneurs meetings. Meet people and talk to a lot of people and expand your social networks because someone will always have a piece of advice for you. The person you least expect will probably be able to help you in some way. That’s what I found.”
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.