ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nick Peña is the type of self-proclaimed foodie who must take pictures of everyone’s meal at the table before their first bite.
He’s fascinated by a dish’s presentation, the color, the aroma – all elements that tell a story about the source of the food, the people who cook the food and the town they live in.
“Food is an education, it’s an experience, and it’s historical,” said Peña, a 32-year-old Albuquerque resident. “You can really get to know a city based on its food.”
Peña wanted others to get to know his hometown of Santa Fe through its cuisine. With a website, business relationships at five restaurants and an upstart attitude, Peña launched Food Tours New Mexico in May 2011 with his own funds.
Food tours take visitors to different restaurants where they can explore traditional dishes, new restaurant concepts and learn about the town by walking to each eatery.
An N.M. flavor
Peña first learned of the food tour concept in Scottsdale, Ariz., where his high school friend ran a successful food tour business. He decided to open his own business and planned his first food tour around New Mexican food.
With each tour lasting about 2½ hours with stops at five different restaurants, Peña spends time educating visitors on the difference between New Mexican flavors and Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes.
Peña said as a naturally gregarious person, the tour guide job fit his personality perfectly. He’s constantly on the move and engaging with people from different states, even tourists who traveled from outside the country.
“I love that food brings people together,” Peña said.
Those who went on the food tour later asked Peña if he knew of other restaurants to visit, which led him to come up with a second tour focused on different food trends in Santa Fe.
“People didn’t realize Santa Fe was such a culinary destination outside of New Mexican food,” Peña said. “The farm-to-table scene is big here because we have a lot of local farms and ranches.”
Eric Donovan, owner of tour stop Santa Fe Olive Oils and Balsamic Company, said Peña’s food tour company helps small businesses gain more customers. “He’s a smart guy and very knowledgeable on the products of this area,” Donovan said. “He also helps us out with cross marketing and gives me pointers that help us promote our business.”
Following his success in Santa Fe, Peña set his sights on Albuquerque. He moved to Albuquerque in 2013 and his first local tour highlighted restaurants in Nob Hill, just two blocks from where he lived as a college student.
“I was lucky because everyone I talked to really understood the concept, so the first five places I went to were on board,” Peña said.
One of those places was Yanni’s, a Mediterranean restaurant on Central Avenue.
“I thought he had an innovative idea and we ran with it because we like to share our food, get the word out about the things on our menu and it helps us as a business, too,” said Chris Komis, owner of Yanni’s.
Peña’s second Albuquerque food tour visited New Mexican restaurants in Old Town, and his latest tour will focus on craft beer in the area.
With just four part-time workers, Peña’s company is small but growing. Food Tours New Mexico sold 300 tickets in 2011 and hit almost 1,000 ticket sales last year, which start at $58 per person.
Peña credits his customers for the company’s success, as the web-savvy group often finds his tour online and then writes reviews about it. One food tour received Trip Advisor’s Top Tour in Santa Fe last year.
“We get emails and reviews that say this was their best experience in New Mexico,” Peña said. “It’s nice to show people the positive things about New Mexico because I’m so proud of our state. In my heart, that’s awesome.”