People may love New Mexico’s big sky and postcard-worthy scenery, but they can get downright obsessed with its food – and the tourism industry is working hard to capitalize on that zeal.
The state Tourism Department has made culinary-themed marketing one of its main focuses this year, according to Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson. She estimates the state will spend $100,000 this fiscal year on specific food-related advertising, paying for space in magazines such as Saveur but also seeking food-centric news coverage from writers at key publications.
New Mexico’s cuisine also will play an integral part in the state’s more general marketing campaign in cities such as Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston and Phoenix.
A ‘growing’ focus
“We’ve always known that (culinary tourism is) important, but I think over the last few years, it seems to be growing, and it’s more of a focus area for us,” Jacobson said. “It’s something we don’t want to let happen, it’s something we want to take more of a leadership and ownership role in.”
The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau has long incorporated food in its marketing and is now conducting annual culinary tours for food journalists.
Tania Armenta of the ACVB describes food as a “critically important” vehicle for luring visitors. The bureau’s overarching marketing goal is to show potential visitors that Albuquerque is a one-of-a-kind city, and local food helps communicate that message.
Culinary tourism is a hot trend, she said, in part because more travelers are actively seeking unique dining experiences, but also because eating is part of every trip.
“Although there are people who are true foodies who travel just for that aspect, unlike other ‘niche markets,’ it’s true every traveler is going to eat, and I think they want to have good food and culinary experiences while they’re traveling,” she said.
Recent tourism industry research indicates that nearly a third of travelers deliberately pick destinations based on food- and drink-related activities, Jacobson said. Anecdotal evidence shows culinary tourism is on the rise, she added, citing food’s increasing role in American popular culture.
With its diverse and distinctive edible offerings, Jacobson believes New Mexico is well positioned to excel among the growing number of food-conscious travelers.
NM’s chile ‘advantage’
“I think it’s an area where we actually have a competitive advantage and a right to succeed,” Jacobson said. “We can be a leader in terms of culinary tourism.”
When it comes to enticing potential visitors with food, there is no hotter commodity than chile.
Chile appeals to visitors seeking authenticity, Jacobson said, and it plays well to the traveler who prioritizes adventure and experience – the type of person the Tourism Department already thinks is leaning toward New Mexico.
Chile is also a great differentiator for the state, and one that seems to have worldwide appeal.
Jane Butel, cookbook author and owner of a Corrales cooking school, said out-of-towners comprised most of her recent cooking class. She also has trained chefs from across the globe, including those with plans of starting New Mexican-style restaurants in India and Nigeria.
“The word is out about the New Mexican taste,” she said. “Especially anybody who knows anything about food.”
But highlighting New Mexico’s edible assets doesn’t mean sticking with traditional, chile-laden “New Mexican” food.
Other food treasures
The Tourism Department has a list of “culinary treasures” on its website – independent restaurants from around the state that boast at least 40 years of local history – that run the gamut from Clovis’ Foxy Drive-In to the fine dining at The Compound Restaurant in Santa Fe.
ACVB also works to showcase the city’s varied cuisine. When it hosted its latest group of food journalists, the itinerary included a visit to Talin Market for the regular Wednesday food truck gathering, a tour of microbreweries to show off the city’s craft beer scene and trips to a few metro-area farms.
The journalists – most from the New York area – also received a primer on Native American food at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s Pueblo Harvest Café. Staff there provided a culinary history lesson about the “three sisters” – corn, squash and beans – and served bowlfuls of chakewe con huevos (a dish of traditional blue corn porridge topped with carne adovada, eggs, cheddar and tomatoes), homemade tortillas and fry bread.
Armenta said journalists often communicate how impressed they are with the city’s food landscape.
“When someone like that says you should be really proud of your restaurant scene and culinary scene, that’s coming from a great authority,” Armenta said.
Seeking local taste
Culinary tourism may be a growing trend, but it’s certainly not new to Golden Crown Panaderia.
Visitors helped carry Golden Crown when it transitioned from a wholesale to retail business in 2002, said Chris Morales, who owns the New Mexican bakery with his father. Its location along Mountain Road captured tourists already in the area visiting nearby museums at a time when locals still thought it was only wholesale.
Back then, it was just coincidence, Morales said. But now that the bakery has developed a sterling online reputation, earned mention in major media outlets like National Geographic and air time on the Food Network, it has become an actual destination for tourists – both foreign and domestic.
Some come for the baked goods such as biscochitos (the New Mexico state cookie), while others seek out the place because it gives pizza a local flair by using green chile or blue corn crusts.
“There is a big movement of people who want to find a local spot where the locals eat and where locals go,” Morales said. “People will actively seek out restaurants (like that).”
One popular restaurant
Visitors also have been flocking to El Pinto, the 51-year-old New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque’s North Valley.
The restaurant does not advertise outside New Mexico but has been featured in many national publications during its 51-year existence.
Marketing director Doug Evilsizor said roughly a quarter of the customers at El Pinto – the state’s largest and one of its most famous restaurants – are from out of state. Servers there are trained to answer the inevitable questions about red and green chile, sopaipillas and even the salsa produced in a factory right behind the restaurant.
“Culinary tourism is big, and New Mexico is a great place for it,” he said.