Quick-Fire Questions with
Celia Brooks, Founder of Gastrotours
London Food Tours
She specially designs each day to be bursting at the seams with exclusive food and wine tastings and encounters with passionate foodies and producers: a chance to discover new tastes, rediscover old ones, and to acquire knowledge about food, wine and a London neighbourhood through all your senses. Celia conducts all the tours personally – bringing an unforgettable experience of local and authentic gastronomy!
Hi Celia! What inspired you to start the business and how did you get started?
In 2002, I had been running a catering business for several years and had two cookbooks published, but I felt stuck. Catering was too stressful and I realised books were not going to pay the bills. In essence, I wanted to inspire people and feed them wonderful food, so I started dreaming of a giant career leap.
I conceived a massive project – setting up a business called the “Culinarium”, which would be a cookery school, cafe/restaurant, cookbook shop, and cookware shop all in one. It involved a massive amount of investment, so I had a Board of Directors lining up, and the promise of fabulous premises in South Kensington. It was a big risk and got very close to becoming a reality. At the last hurdle, the project fell apart. That turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
I realised that, rather than succumb to the stress of high risk and become a slave to investors, I could use what was already out there – the wonderful London markets, food shops and restaurants. I could string them together into an exciting experience for hungry and curious customers, while at the same time supporting small businesses.
My first food tour was in Portobello, where I had lived for 8 years. Celia Brooks’ London Gastrotours was born. Not long after, I founded the first-ever tasting tour at Borough Market, where I was later granted an exclusive license to run the only official tour there.
Can you tell us a little about the driving purpose for Gastrotours?
Gastrotours is primarily driven by my own passion to inspire people through food and to share knowledge, while also entertaining my clients. I have a theatre background, and I see my tours a bit like performing a show – I use the food environments as the stage, the wonderful, passionate traders I work with and the food itself are the co-stars, and my customers are the audience – usually no more than 12 people.
My clients are mostly British corporate groups or individuals who redeem gift vouchers for my tours by signing up for my public events. Tourists are also welcome, and I work closely with several high-end tour operators.
Interestingly, the concept of food tours seemed to grow out of a collective worldwide consciousness over the last two decades. Visitors love to get to know London through a food tour, and for private groups, food and drink are a great common denominator that brings people together to have fun. I’ve capitalised on that by providing a service that appeals because it’s fun, enlightening and delicious. I bring my personal flair and knowledge to the table, and so do the lovely traders, restaurateurs and shopkeepers who participate by providing the tastings on my tours.
If you could go back, what would you do differently?
I didn’t build the business with any concept of its future – I was just doing what I love, and loving its success as it bloomed. A few years ago, I realised I’d painted myself into a corner. Because I made myself the star of my own show, it was difficult to imagine hiring a stand-in. Once the demand for my tours outstretched my ability to operate all the tours on my own, I looked into finding people to run some of them for me.
For the tours to run as they should, I would have to pay someone with the right qualifications, skill and passion at least as much as I pay myself, so there would be no profit for me. Since I could not expand, I would never be able to eventually sell the business on. I do, however, have a brilliant PA who handles all the minutiae for me, which takes a lot of pressure off.
Looking back, I should have approached it with better business acumen and started building a team from the beginning. But at least I’m lucky enough to have been loving my work over nearly 20 years of running the business!
COVID-19 has forced businesses to adapt, redesign their products/services and even create new ones to respond to the demands of millions self-isolating around the world. How has Gastrotours pivoted its business model and what has been the impact?
By the beginning of 2020, I was running tours up to seven times a week at Borough and my other London foodie hotspots such as Marylebone, Covent Garden and Portobello. Then – bam! – March 2020. COVID hits, lockdown ensues, and the entire hospitality and tourism industries shut down. Food tours were completely off the menu.
Before long, I stopped freaking out and licking my wounds and got busy. I was doing a heck of a lot of cooking at home, like so many others stuck indoors, and gardening too, growing fruit and veg on my allotment in Tottenham. I did some live cooking demos from home for Borough Market on IGTV and created an online group called “Menu Inspiration Circle”. People sent me photos of what they have in their cupboards and fridge, and I’d have a group Zoom session consulting them on what they could cook, with the whole group sharing and benefitting from the ideas that arose. People loved it and so did I.
It became evident that with the technology available to us now, we can actually have meaningful interactions online. I felt inspired by the fact that I can reach people this way all over the world. I started to figure out how I could properly transpose the passion and knowledge that I bring to my food tours onto an online platform.
Now, I have built a solid portfolio to offer food lovers everywhere. In the UK, I can offer uniquely delicious experiences by sending out curated food and drink hampers and then conducting entertaining online tastings events for groups, from the comfort of everyone’s respective homes. I offer cooking classes and “virtual dinner parties” for a worldwide audience, and I’m delighted by the unexpected bonus that I can now reach people all over the globe in real-time. My “Menu Inspiration Circle” still runs twice a month. All these events can be booked via my website. I also offer gift packages.
Getting the right advice can often be the difference between success and failure. If you could only give 3 tips to someone starting a small business today, what would they be and why?
- Don’t hesitate to hire help – start with a trustworthy PA as soon as you can afford it, to handle accounts and small, time-consuming tasks.
- Establish a social media presence for your business and spend time making it interesting and keeping it active and interactive, or hire someone to do so. Also consider paying a PR who specialises in your field to launch a publicity campaign, even if just short-term.
- Set goals: envisage where you want your business to be in 2 years’ time, 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time, and beyond. Get clear on the essence of what you want from your business: sure, everybody wants to make money, but what is the true higher purpose of your endeavour? Do you want to help people? Make a better world? Create a life for yourself that allows you to give back to your community or to help other small businesses? Get clear on the quality aspect of your dreams, not just the quantity. Focus on creating what you want, not getting rid of what you don’t want.
Have you had any advice from business mentors, family or friends that has really stuck with you and helped push your business forward?
Long before I worked for myself and built my business, I discovered my love of cooking in my 20s when I got hired as a private chef for the film director Stanley Kubrick and his wife Christiane. They took me under their wing before I really knew what I was doing, and let me play around in their kitchen for a few years while I learned my craft. They were incredibly kind, supportive and patient with me.
Mrs Kubrick encouraged me to find my own way and listen to my inner voice, assuring me that there could be a great career out there in food if I was persistent and true to myself.
Where do you see Gastrotours in 2 – 3 years time?
The future of my Gastrotours depends largely on how soon we return to a COVID-free world, and whether the pandemic will have marred us permanently in terms of how we interact with each other. If everyone gets the vaccine and COVID is completely eradicated, then maybe my tours will get back to normal in about 2 years’ time.
I have a feeling that we will all be more cautious about being in close contact with strangers, and sharing food – even if it’s little pieces of cheese or chocolate or charcuterie from a shared platter, for example. I will certainly have to rethink how I entertain a group of people in a crowded market space or small shop environment.
In 3 years, my hope is that Gastrotours will be back to what it was in 2019. Meanwhile, I hope to continue doing more online experiences and reaching more people outside of the confines of London.