Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: A taste of the Sacramento Valley

November/December 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Woman's tours show the farm-to-table connection




Heather Fortes runs a farm-and-food-tour business that helps people understand how their food and drinks get to their tables. Photo courtesy of SacTown Bites Food Tour Adventures

A former commercial photographer, Heather Fortes runs the year-round business SacTown Bites Food Tour Adventures. She leads three- to four-hour day trips in the Sacramento Valley centered around farms, food and beverages, each with a different theme. Tours cover multiple stops and include food-and-drink pairings, with tastings and usually also a full meal.

During the pandemic, she's postponed her popular indoor dining experiences and moved trips to outdoor venues with room for social distancing. She kept busy through the 2020 shutdown by creating Farm to Fork in a Box, a service delivering locally grown and produced products.

When and why did you start SacTown Bites? I launched it in September of 2019. I've always loved cooking and learning about ingredients and where they come from or how they are grown. I was out to dinner with family in December of 2018 at a Korean barbecue place and I realized how lucky we are in the Sacramento Valley area to have so much great food available to us, and such a variety, and that we live in one of the largest growing regions in the world. I was ready for a change in my career and I really wanted to get to know the food scene better. I thought creating a food-tour company would be a great way to follow my passion and share it with others.

What type of places do you visit? I try to visit places that have authenticity and obviously great food or beverages. I look for family-owned places that have some history or a good story behind them. I love hearing the backstory of how farms or restaurants got started, or what inspired the chef for a dish. I love learning about the passion behind the food. Some places might be well-known or they could be hidden gems.

Who typically comes on the trips? I get a huge mix of people on my tours, from couples celebrating an anniversary to families wanting to try something new, groups that do a monthly hangout and locals just wanting to experience something new. I've had people travel from as far away as San Jose, Reno, Modesto and Chico. I've had guests on the tour from Los Angeles and the East Coast and one couple from Paris who were in town visiting. I also get a lot of locals on my tours that have lived here their entire lives and just want to get to know the food scene better.

How do the farmers respond to the visitors? The farmers love it. They are experts in their fields and have an eager and captive audience that often has never seen the inside of a beehive or how olive oil is made. It's an opportunity for them to connect with their community and see the appreciation and respect in their guests' eyes. It's really great when we get a group that asks a lot of questions, too. Most farmers are never short on stories or sharing their knowledge.

How does your business help raise awareness of California agriculture? All my tours are centered on learning about where our food comes from and why that is important. By having guests learn that, for example, pears are handpicked by people on ladders, washed and sorted, then hand packed for distribution—to actually see how that is done is illuminating and gives people a new appreciation for the next pear they eat or helps them better understand the cost of that pear. Learning about farmers' challenges with drought and water rights, labor shortages and how to provide fair wages while still producing the same amount of product is eye opening. Hearing how a farmer has to rip out a whole field of organic lavender because of a mildew that can't be prevented without chemicals gives one a new appreciation for how challenging farming truly is.


Tour participants visiting Capay Valley Lavender learn how lavender is distilled to make oil. Photo courtesy of SacTown Bites Food Tour Adventures

What's one of your most popular events? The Midtown Farm to Table Tour. I take small groups who walk around to various restaurants. I work with the chefs in the restaurant about what's going to be served. We go to five different places and we have a small plate and a drink pairing at each place. So, by the time we're done, we've had more than a complete meal. Sometimes the owners or the chefs will come out and talk to the group, or I talk about  the inspiration behind the plate or what farm the ingredients came from. As we're walking, we'll stop at a few murals and public art sites as part of the experience.

But I haven't been able to offer these during the pandemic. I started with a walking tour when I launched the business and it was really, really popular and people call me almost every day asking for that. But restaurants are struggling with staffing and the challenges with constant fluidity. It's a really difficult time for them and I want to be respectful of their logistics.

Along that line, how did you improvise during the COVID shutdown? After shutting down due to COVID in March 2020, and doing a lot of Netflix binging and bread baking, I decided to create Farm to Fork in a Box. It was my way of keeping my passion and focus alive, and still showcasing the great foods in the Sacramento area. It's like a food tour delivered to your door. Each box showcases products that are grown and made locally by farmers, chefs and makers. A monthly box has evolved into a quarterly box that includes items such as olive oil, honey, jam and nuts. I also now have a grill box with barbecue sauces and spice rubs and a honey box with three unique honeys. A "Welcome to Sacramento" box is the perfect gift from realtors to new homeowners. At the holidays, I will add giftable options such as a sweets box. Custom boxes are also a big part of my business around the holidays. I also can turn the boxes into a virtual experience and combine them with a wine tasting or cocktail class.

Do you have any new ideas or plans for the near future? Oh, I have lots of ideas. I am working with some local chefs on creating experiences that involve sit-down dinners. I am planning on creating a multi-day tour with a partner I have in Mexico City. That was actually in the works before COVID. It was going to be an artist and food tour where we would go to artists' studios and see murals. I had a cocktails tour packaged and ready to launch in March 2020. And the week we were supposed to begin it, we had to shut down. That tour has an around-the-world theme and involves walking to four different places and having a cocktail with a small bite pairing. That might even be first thing I get back up and running because logistically it's a little bit easier than the Farm to Table Tour.

I'm also working with a brewery that grows their own hops and that would involve a pretty in-depth tour of that brewery with the owner and tasting, and then finishes with a chef's dinner with food pairings with the beer. And this is top secret—well, I guess it's not top secret if I tell you—but I'm also working on a tour that involves caviar, so I'll say that much.

What hours and days are tours typically offered? Typically, my tour dates and times are dictated around my partners' hours and what is best for them. That usually means between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. But it can vary depending on the tour. I can also create private experiences by request for groups of six or more. 


Fortes had to pivot her farm-and-food-tour business during the COVID shutdown, so she created Farm to Fork in a Box. Photo courtesy of SacTown Bites Food Tour Adventures

Where do you get your tour ideas? Honestly, I create experiences I would like to go on. I research of course, and I usually begin with a nugget of an idea, or ingredient, and then start to research more. There is a lot of front-end planning to make sure there is balance. Often, I start talking to one partner and that leads me to the next thing. 

How do you network and make connections to build your business? I've made a lot of connections through building my artisan food boxes. When I find a product I would like to feature, I cold-call the farm or business. I often get referrals as well. And many of my products have ended up in my box because the maker has contacted me. Some of the connections from the boxes have turned into tour ideas. For example, I've been working with Capay Valley Lavender since my first box, featuring their lavender-spiced walnuts and almonds, the baking kits and the spa products. I absolutely love what the farmer, Sherri Wood, has done. I couldn't wait for things to open so I could create a farm-tour experience working with her.

Besides just having a good time, what do you hope participants get out of the experience? Although you may be mixed in with strangers on the same tour, by the end of the day many people have made new friends. The biggest takeaway on my tours is, even if you've already been to these establishments, you are able to experience them in a whole new way and through new eyes. 

What are some of the comments participants have made during/after a tour? The feedback has been great. Guests really like getting behind the scenes and meeting the farmers and makers and drilling down into how things are grown or produced. Oftentimes, it's a person's first-ever food tour and after the tour, they tell me they can't wait to do another one. It's a really fun and tasty way to explore a neighborhood, or cuisine without having to do anything but show up—I will take it from there.

Linda DuBois


    
        

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