CANANDAIGUA — After his first dish of the day on a recent Finger Lakes Food Tour, Justin Vicens was second guessing his decision to eat a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs that morning.
Vicens had just finished a traditional pork tamale at Rio Tomatlán restaurant, which features authentic Mexican cuisine made from scratch. And he still had five more stops to make.
Vicens was one of six food tour participants on a Saturday earlier this month. The group met on Rio Tomatlán’s porch, where guide Suzanne Wright greeted them and shared her goals for the afternoon — to entertain, teach them a bit about Canandaigua’s culture and history and “... to get your tummies pleasantly full in the next three hours.”
Wright’s Canandaigua tours are held each Friday and Saturday and feature visits to the same six establishments (in this order):
• Rio Tomatlán at 106 Bemis St.
• Sweet Solutions, 88 S. Main St.
• Eddie O’Brien’s, 182 S. Main St.
• Flavors Indian Restaurant, 35 Lafayette Ave.
• F. Oliver’s Oils & Vinegars, 129 S. Main St.
• Good Life Tea, 181 S. Main St.
Participants pay $53 each and Wright leads them from place to place, offering both historical and culinary tidbits of information along the way.
She sticks with the same restaurants each week.
“The vendors get used to it; they have their signature dishes and know what to serve,” she said.
No one on this group had ever been on a food tour before. Samantha Burmeister and John Boccacino of Canandaigua were looking for a fun holiday weekend activity. Vicens and his girlfriend, MaryRose Bugbee, were hosting her friend Katie Robertson, of Charleston, S.C. Also joining the Bloomfield couple was MaryRose’s father, Tim Bugbee.
“I stumbled across this on Facebook and thought ‘this sounds kind of cool,” MaryRose Bugbee said. “I’ve never done it myself and I live here.”
Roberston was glad her nursing school friend arranged the outing.
“We don’t have anything like this in Charleston, which is surprising,” Robertson said.
As the group sampled their pork tamales, Chef Rafael Guevara stopped by the table to explain how they are made. He learned his techniques from his mother, and told his guests that he tries to source as many of his ingredients locally as he can — including tomatillos. Guevara works with a local farmer who grows 7,000 to 12,000 pounds of tomatillos each year.
“We nitro freeze them so we get the fresh taste year round,” he said.
After they were finished, the group walked around the art-filled restaurant and took a peak at the outdoor herb garden. Wright obliged when Burmeister and Boccacino asked her to snap their photo.
Wright started The Finger Lakes Food Tours in June 2015. The former bed and breakfast owner loves to travel and enjoyed similar tours in cities she visited. In addition to her B&B, she also ran a getaway planning business called Simply Just for the Girls. But as more wine tour and limousine companies started offering similar services, “it didn’t take long for me to realize I was going to become extinct. This is the perfect segue,” Wright said.
Her business is growing, and Wright said she may need to hire help soon. She just added a Geneva happy hour tour, called Geneva’s Urban Upshift Happy Hour. The 90-minute tours on Friday evenings start at 5:30, cost $41 per person and feature appetizers and signature drinks at Cebo, Kashong Creek and Beef & Brew.
She likes the fact that her tours require walking — they leave no carbon footprint — and that they give clients a flavor of the city they are exploring. There is a maximum of 12 people per tour, and private tours are available upon request.
“When I first started I put myself in the shoes of the visitor,” Wright said. “I asked ‘what would I want to see, what’s historical,’ but food is important.”
On the Canandaigua tour, the participants enjoyed cinnamon buns at the Sweet Solutions bakery then headed to Eddie O’Brien’s for some fries and their signature Reuben sandwich (where the corned beef is cooked for 10 to 12 hours). The restaurant, she noted, is named for the owners’ grandfather.
The tours are more than eating, though.
Although Wright sprinkles in facts about the area (i.e. actress Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live fame was born in Canandaigua and Humphrey Bogart spent summers on Seneca Point), she also tries to get her clients to converse and get to know each other. They are, after all, sharing several meals together. As the group sat at a circular table at Eddie O’Brien’s, Wright whipped out a conversation starter game. And at the end of that stop, she posed her clients in the lobby for a group picture.
Wright’s tour features a diversity of food and gets clients off of Main Street — and takes them around the world. Their stop at Flavors Indian Restaurant on Lafayette Avenue was where stomachs really began to get full. Chef Abhay Thapar provided tastings ranging from appetizers to dessert, and several people stretched their palates to try Indian food for the first time.
The Lamb Xacutti was the hands-on favorite.
“Honestly the lamb is fantastic,” said John Boccacino. “I’m a big fan. What a spread they gave us.”
Then he waved his white napkin, a metaphorical surrender to the food still on the table.
“We can’t have you walking away from a food tour hungry,” said Wright, who arranges the final two stops at F. Olivers Oils & Vinegars and Good Life Tea on purpose. All work to aid digestion and settle the stomach.
Todd Habberfield of F. Olivers put his natural showmanship skills to work as he explained the different varieties of olive oils; specialty oils like avocado, sesame and almond; and the difference between light and dark balsamic vinegars. The darks are sweeter and richer as they age, while the lights are crisper, tart, more acidic and popular in warmer weather.
“All of the dark balsamics are fantastic over ice cream,” Habberfield said, helpful advice in this warmest of summers.
Then he set the tour participants loose in the store and they sampled away .... tasting their way toward the end of a culinary excursion in downtown Canandaigua.