A desire to learn how to make real Chinese dumplings sparked an idea for a unique travel service centered around authentic homecooking off-the-eaten path.
By Jasmin France (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
Stephanie Lawrence was spending the year in China attempting, among other things, to check something off her bucket list: learning how to making dumplings from a Chinese grandmother. But despite exhaustive research, she wasn’t able find any options offering cooking lessons from a local. Not long after starting business school at Haas, she met Aashi Vel, who had a similar travel experience in Mexico when she saw a woman making homemade tortillas through a window. Together, they hatched the idea for Traveling Spoon, a service centered on connecting travelers with local people, all around delicious food experiences (it was also recently voted as the People’s Choice Winner at the Women 2.0 Conference 2013 – Las Vegas). I sat down with Stephanie to get the low-down on the company and its plans for the future.
So, what exactly is Traveling Spoon? What is your mission?
Traveling Spoon connects travelers with authentic food experiences — from homemade meals to cooking classes — in people’s homes around the world. Our mission is to help people find and connect with meaningful travel experiences, through food.
How did you get the idea for the company?
Aashi and I both had similar experiences traveling in locations that aren’t necessarily huge culinary destinations. It’s pretty easy to find wine and cooking trips throughout France–there are hundreds of them–but what about the off-the-beaten-path, authentic culinary experiences that let you interact with locals? It gives you a little window into another culture and makes the world seems so much smaller when you can go into a person’s home and learn how to cook a meal. This is something we each personally wanted, and knew others wanted, as well.
How did you start making the idea a reality?
We both felt really powerfully about this idea, but we needed to make sure it had consumer traction. A lot of people at our school did treks, and we knew of a group of students going to India. Aashi is from India and her connections allowed us to find a willing host there. We emailed the group of students and asked if they would be interested in a homecooked meal. It was over-subscribed within the first hour, which we took as a great sign that we were onto something. Our first eight customers went on a trip to Cochin, India in January 2012. Every single person said that it was the highlight of their trip–not only a meaningful experience, but also the best food they had eaten on their travels.
How do you select the hosts–or do they select you?
Very early on, we wanted the brand to be about quality. Trust and credibility are really important for us, so we have a really thorough vettingprocess. We meet every host and eat their food. 100% of our hosts are personally vetted. In order to find potential hosts, we start by reaching out to our personal networks. Now that we’re up and running, we do have some local PR and have had some press in India that drive hosts reaching out to us and asking to be a part of our community. We’ve also had a number of referrals through existing hosts. In addition to the vetting, the hosts must be able to speak a little English and have access to the Internet.
What is the benefit to the hosts?
All of the hosts set their own fees. We initially thought the main value for the hosts was the income–and that is important–but there’s actually a huge variety of reasons people host. There are many older people who want the company of young people. Some of our hosts want to practice their English skills; some of them simply love cooking and want to share their cuisine and culture with others. One of our hosts had a great reason she shared with us: normally, her husband is really grouchy, but having new people in the house makes him happy and gets him talking.
How many hosts do you have now and where are they located?
Aashi traveled to India and brought on our first 40 hosts, who are located in eight cities throughout the country. Our second sourcing trip was to Thailand and Vietnam. Now, we have more than 65 hosts in the three countries and 15 cities. We’re aiming to expand soon, with the next two countries being China and Japan.
What are the overall goals of the company?
In addition to providing travelers with rich, meaningful and delicious experiences, we have also aimed to provide an income generator for women in developing countries (95 percent of our hosts are women). Another goal is to to preserve food traditions, since travelers may share recipes and stories that might not otherwise be passed on.
We’ve also started to work with some non-profits. A long-term goal is that 20 percent of hosts would be vetted through local NGOs. Some of these have a local community center that has Internet access, which would provide an opportunity for hosts that wouldn’t otherwise be able to access the Traveling Spoon backend.
What are your future plans for the company?
We just launched our beta website this past July, which lets customers reserve a customized experience online. We are continuing to develop this technology and have exciting plans for new features and a more robust web platform to be rolled out in the future. And of course, we plan to continue to add more hosts and expand into more countries very soon.
We are so excited all the times we hear from our travelers that Traveling Spoon was the highlight of their trip. We see incredible potential for this company to change the future of travel, and that is what we strive to do, every day. We want to facilitate the kinds of cultural interactions that make the world a smaller, better place — introducing travelers to the people and flavors of a country in a way that makes the country real. We love what we do and are so excited about building this company. We hope you’ll travel with us!
Where would you like to see Traveling Spoon’s services expand to?
About the blogger: Jasmine France is a travel-addicted, food-obsessed Bay Area writer with a decade of experience covering consumer electronics, digital music, mobile apps and cloud computing. Follow her on Twitter @WeirdEaredJas.