Sheena at Truffle Chocolate Shop Galway Food Tours
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A Chat With Sheena Dignam, Founder of Galway Food Tours

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The Galway Food Tours were launched by Sheena Dignam after her fair share of different experiences in the food industry over 15 years. Sheena has a passion for showcasing the local producers of Galway, demonstrating their diversity to visitors and locals alike. We had a chat with her about the tours and what led to her starting up the business.

For those who don’t know, what are the Galway Food Tours?

Galway Food Tours are culinary food visits throughout the city. Over the course of several hours we will take you to several different venues, restaurants, distilleries, producers etc. giving people a chance to understand the culture of Galway through the food and drink but also, to see places that are off the beaten track that they wouldn’t necessarily get to go to. Each tour that we do replaces a meal so you’re kind of getting the sights and the vibe of the city with your lunch or dinner at the same time.

What kind of tours do you offer?

Our main tours that are bookable online are our daytime tours. These run seven days a week at 10:30, and then Sunday 11:30, and then two extra additional tours on a slot on Thursday and Friday at 3:30.

Everything else is bookable by email, so we can organise it on a private basis. We like to get creative in collaboration with the Galway producers to produce something different for people.

We offer sweet tooth food tours, which are all about sweet stops, pastries, talking about our past with baking, our traditions and where we are now. We also have a cycling tour, so you first cycle around Salthill then you come back and do your food tour. We have Irish dancing lessons, so you go and learn a few steps over a few hours with live music in one of the oldest bars in Galway, and that’s with a food tour. You can carve your own Claddagh ring in your own design, which is followed by a food tour, and we have whiskey tours too. We work with Sarah Jenkins who weaves baskets – we’re trying to add fashion tours too.

Can you tell me about your own background in the food & tourism business?

I’m from Wicklow originally, but I moved to France when I was eight. When I got there, my parents opened a guest house that they still have today, so immediately I was immersed, but I fell in love with the locals. We became very close friends with them, and how they considered foods. I remember thinking that i never saw food that way before, where you’re sitting down and talking about textures, tastes etc. and then we got into wine pairing as I got a bit older, like where it comes from, what it’s cooked in… it just blew my mind.

I went into culinary arts and wine in France, and then I moved back to Ireland. At the time, there was great opportunities – I started working with Patrick Guilbaud in his new venture at the time, and I just really enjoyed the new Ireland and the new restaurant scene.

Eveleen from Fab Food Trails was probably the first person in Ireland to set up food tours back then, and I just loved her slow tourism approach, in the sense that people would be walking with her and she’d be showing them the inside places to go. Back then, I was running a chocolate shop on Drury Street called Cocoa Atelier back in the day, so her food trails, for me as a venue, were fantastic. I got to showcase what we were, where we produce and why we do what we do. People got to taste it, and you’re keeping money in the local economy because people would come back another time after the tour.

When I moved to Galway, I wanted a change of scenery but I always wanted to show my French compatriots what we were doing in Ireland. I think there was a negative connotation on Irish food back then, like food that’s bland, overcooked. I wanted to show them what we were doing, the whole innovation around food that was so exciting. I really love the connection between producer and restaurant in Galway, how direct it was at the time. At the time, I was working in Kai and I got to see all the producers coming in doing their own deliveries – you got to see some amazing stuff walking through those doors that would get transformed in something absolutely stunning by Jess.

After this, I decided that I wanted to start showing people the places to go, because I have that knowledge. I did originally only set up for French speakers, and now that’s probably 10% of my business – now it’s mainly all English speaking.

What sets the Galway Food Tours apart from similar businesses?

I think all the food tours that are happening around Ireland are fantastic, because I think we all have the same mission to showcase what amazing producers we have to offer. However, I will say that, we definitely do only work with small venues with a strong ethos that we can connect to because if you’re bringing somebody to a place, it’s not just bringing them to get fed or to have a drink, you’re bringing them because of the story of who’s behind that and who’s running it. We wanted them to experience the culture of the city through the venues that we bring them to.

For example, we serve sushi on our food tour. Some may think that without context, this is a little weird, but there is a story behind why we’re giving you the sushi. Yoshimi from Japan came to Ireland in 2001, and she loved the Irish, the warmness we have naturally. Seamus Sheridan, from Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, gave her a space outside of the market beside his shop, and she started selling sushi. She was fascinated with our connection of fish, but she noticed that the love wasn’t really there. She was asking why? We’re so close to the sea, why don’t we become a little bit more expressive with it. So selling sushi was a disaster for her for two years, but then she starting making turnip sushi, because that’s something we love to eat and we can connect to it, and the rest is history. She’s got a restaurant, she’s won many awards, and this is why I’m giving you sushi!

How important has social media been for you in spreading the word?

It’s been very very important. We’re working with an amazing PR firm, who have helped to get the world out there 10 times quicker than me just doing my own way. Gina, who is part of our team, she was the Instagram whizz – she’s a tour guide, so she knows what it’s like to be in the trenches, she gets a feel of what we do, so she’s running our Instagram page.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since going into business?

Pricing, and finding stops for the tour. Since we don’t just bring people to a place just to feed them, the venues on our tour are very special to me, they’re kind of like family, and that’s the way the guests are welcomed when they come on tour. There’s been a lot of restaurant closures, a lot of changes, and it’s just been difficult, and with the increase of the pricing for food and drink, it’s been difficult to keep the tours at an attractive price for the customer, so it’s just been a hard balance.

During Covid, it was complete shutdown for two years, but in fairness out of all the people in the food and drink industry, I think I might have been the luckiest in the sense that I didn’t have any massive overheads to pay. When we reopened, it was a bit difficult going into venues with masks and vaccination passes and all that jazz, but it was relatively easy to start back up again, so I’m very grateful for that. Me and my ex colleague Gosia, we created a self guided book. We worked with a local desigenr who does all the beautiful coffee cups in Coffee Work. Each venue that we would have in the book would have a lovely sketch of them and a description of what it was, and on the back, there were little vouchers for each venue. I’m really proud of that project.

What do you feel is your biggest achievement to date with this business?

We were voted Best Food and Beverage Experience in Ireland, in 2020. I still don’t think I’ve gotten down from that high, it’s just been so lovely. We’re in the Natinoal Geographic for the 10 best thing to do in Ireland. Those kinds of recommendations in guide books, it’s the most amazing thing to actually see yourself with an amazing team doing wonderful work, and getting feedback from guests when they really enjoy themselves.

Could you ever have imagined doing anything else with your life?

It was always going to be food and drinks. From the age of 16, studying food and wine, I immersed myself completely in that and I’ve only ever done anything to do with food. What really gets me going is the producers and what they’re making, and hopefully including somebody and sharing that experience with them.

There will be some upcoming features about the best spots in Galway from you – what can people expect?

I’d like to talk about the rise of amazing bakeries that we have in Galway. I also want to talk about the wine bars that we have. I’ve always had my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the city and once it’s open, I want to be there and eat there and see if it can be included on my tour.

Where is your favourite restaurant in Galway?

What does the future hold for the Galway Food Tours? 

The future is bright! I’ve started the tours in my home town in France, in Tours. Food Tours in Tours!

We’ve got a team of eight, giving us scope to do more events, we did a beautiful sustainability fashion event recently, so just being able to branch out into other events we’d like to do in the future.

www.GalwayFoodTours.com

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