Exposing the Root: How food tourism operators in Atlantic Canada are setting the table for the world

Exposing the Root: How food tourism operators in Atlantic Canada are setting the table for the world
The Dining on the Ocean Floor experience by Flying Apron Inn + Cookery in Nova Scotia. (Photo: Tourism Nova Scotia).

From dinners on the ocean floor to beachside boil-ups, the new wave of culinary tourism operators are whetting the wanderlust, showcasing one-of-a-kind East Coast experiences and garnering worldwide attention

I knew right away the black t-shirt was a mistake. The late September sun beat down on the hungry crowd waiting for ‘The Hike’ to start in the small town of Elliston, Newfoundland—which happens to be the root cellar capital of the world and the home of the Roots, Rants and Roars culinary festival. Thinking it would be cold and rainy I layered up, ready to wander the craggy coastline sampling the dishes of famous chefs from across North America, but the sun was hot; a fine day on clothes.

Meandering the five-kilometre loop past root cellars and brightly-painted saltbox homes with 500 new friends, I devoured chowder made with bacon and razor clams on top of charred buttermilk biscuits by Food Network Chef Duff Goldman and giant potato gnocchi stuffed with salt beef and topped with mustard pickles from Chef Steve Wall of Ottawa’s Supply and Demand. All the while, local musicians belted out tunes. Could it get more Newfoundland than this?

ROOTS, RANTS AND ROARS sells more than 1,000 tickets every year for three days of devouring Newfoundland culture and cuisine, but it’s just one of the dozens of annual culinary events happening across Atlantic Canada, enticing food tourists from all over the world to come dine, stay and spend. Food tourism in Atlantic Canada isn’t just about lighthouses and lobsters anymore—unless you’re cooking the lobster yourself inside a lighthouse. With 6.4-million yearly visitors wanting unique (and Instagrammable) adventures, cooks from the four provinces are jumping out of the kitchen and into the dory to satisfy the appetite of the new food tourist.

On May 21 of this year, the federal government rolled out their new plan for boosting tourism in Canada (currently, tourism brings $102 billion into the Canadian economy, two per cent of the GDP). According to Creating Middle Class Jobs: A Federal Tourism Growth Strategy, 80 per cent of international travelers choose their destinations because of gastronomy—in Canada, only 20 per cent come for the good eats. The federal government knows that one-third of tourist spending worldwide is spent on food (UNWTO Global Report on Food Tourism) and they want a much bigger piece of the pie.

In a region where stagnant rural economies have caused mass outmigration, food tourism is bringing young people back to their hometowns to prepare world-class cuisine on beaches, in gardens and even in kayaks. While lobster dinners will always be appreciated (who doesn’t love unlimited buckets of mussels and bread rolls?) the new wave of culinary tourism in Atlantic Canada is all about the experience. Immersive outdoor dining and culinary boot camps are just some of the ways provincial governments and tour operators are teaming up, setting the table for diners from all over the world.

Shining a light on N.L. food tourism
Before Elliston was the root cellar capital of the world, it was dark. Literally. After the 1992 cod moratorium, so many people left the town there was no tax base and by 1994, the town couldn’t afford to keep the street lights on. They call it “when the town went dark.”

In 1997, a group of concerned citizens decided tourism was the path to generating revenue for the town, forming Tourism Elliston and creating initiatives like the week-long Bird Island Puffin Festival devoted to local culture and claiming the title of Root Cellar Capital of the World. By 2009, all the lights were back on, new roads were paved and the provincial government was focusing on extending the tourist season: all eyes were on Roots, Rants and Roars (RRR), the culinary festival which has brought the tiny town of Elliston (population 308) onto the food tourism radar.

Ten years later, RRR is one of the most sought-after events in the province with all three events selling out every year: Cod Wars has chefs battling for the title of best cod dish; The Hike sees hungry eaters hike the coast and stopping at food stations along the way; and ‘The Feast’ is exactly as it sounds—a seven-course meal by Newfoundland chefs to finish the weekend. Event coordinators Chris Sheppard and Roger Dewling and their army of volunteers are passionate about Newfoundland food culture and make sure to honour it in everything, from the commemorative wine glasses to the tea served with dessert.

Sheppard understands the importance of food tourism and the impact it can have on the local economy. His goal is to attract more non-Newfoundlanders as currently only 10 per cent of festival attendees come from outside the province. Sheppard believes there could be a big payoff for the Bonavista Peninsula and the province as a whole. “If we get people to come to the Bonavista Peninsula to Elliston for the festival and get them to stay for two weeks, that makes an impact on everyone.”

“We know that of the people who come from outside the province, most of them are planning their vacations around Roots, Rants and Roars. Many of them come for a week, or two weeks—the longest stay we recorded was for 30 days.”

In addition to pulling off Roots, Rants and Roars every year for the past six years, Sheppard has a Master of Arts in Tourism Management and has done intensive research on the key attractors of a food tourism destination. He says while Newfoundland and Labrador has a lot going for it (between the media attention for Lori McCarthy and her Codsounds foraging tours and the award-winning Chef Jeremy Charles of Raymond’s restaurant) there is still a ways to go.

“There’s no direction here when it comes to food tourism. There’s a lot of great stuff happening but it’s all happened organically and we need some type of organization to it so we can move forward,” says Sheppard, who advocates the importance of a formalized organization as well as a branded quality assurance program like Taste of Nova Scotia and Feast On in Ontario.

“We have a uniqueness in our food, and that’s why it’s become a destination. There’s probably more opportunity here than the rest of the country. They all have uniqueness but a lot of what’s here is not exported. If you’re in Alberta you’re not in the grocery store buying cod tongues.”

‘The Hike’ at Roots, Rants and Roars: Chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage cooks NL street corn with savoury cream, guacamole and dried bluefin tuna flakes. (Photo: Gabby Peyton)

LEFT: N.L. razor clam chowder from Food Network’s Duff Goldman and Geoff Manthorne. RIGHT: Calgary’s Bridgette Bar Chef JD Pedhirney works at his station. (Photos: Gabby Peyton)

Tasting the trails of Nova Scotia
In Nova Scotia, the importance of food tourism has been on the radar for years. Heather Yule is the manager of Experience Development with Tourism Nova Scotia and credits the cementing of experiential tourism into the province’s action plan to when Tourism Nova Scotia became a Crown Corporation five years ago. Nova Scotia is halfway through their 10-year goal of growing the tourism industry from $2 billion to $4 billion annually by 2024 and since 2014 have put a strong emphasis on culinary tourism.

Tourism Nova Scotia works closely with Destination Canada (creators of the Explorer Quotient profiling tool which helps tourism operators segment the market and better understand visitors). Through that analysis, Tourism Nova Scotia realized they were already good at attracting the cultural tourist who is eager to learn and experience museums or historical sites, but they needed to work on attracting the ‘free spirit’ (i.e., someone willing to drop $500 on a helicopter/dinner experience).

“We knew we had the right mix of assets to attract the free spirit, they tend to be more of an indulgent escapist on their vacation. They want to feel pampered and get away from it all. We needed higher end, luxurious experiences,” explains Yule. “We wanted to work with businesses to create the types of experiences that would attract that segment.”

Enter the World-class Experience EXCELLerator Program. Tourism Nova Scotia created the partner program in 2015 and encouraged local businesses to apply. The first cohort of this program entered the market in 2016 after a year of unique-to-Nova-Scotia experience development, most of which are centered on or incorporated eating.

“Food is integral to everything we offer because we want to showcase it in all of our experiences, whether it’s outdoor adventure or cultural tourism experience—what’s unique to Nova Scotia and a strong part of our culture is our food culture,” says Yule.

Once tourism operators get into the program, it’s really a four-year commitment. The first year is spent fine-tuning the experience to make sure it aligns with the market, during which time Tourism Nova Scotia helps with creating high-quality video and imagery. The next three years are focused on gaining traction in the marketplace.

Cape LeHave Island Glamping, which came through the partner program in 2017, has seen tremendous success. Their experiences, ranging from $749 to $1,499 per person, include guided island hopping via kayak, a good night’s sleep in a glamping tent and feasts showcasing local ingredients like fresh scallops seared in Ironworks rum and lobster steamed in seaweed served right on the beach. Last year they offered one-night excursions with a two-night option and sold out completely. This year they are upgrading to a two-night adventure with a third-night option.

Another of the most successful experiences to come through the program in the first year, what Yule calls a “best practice,” is Dining on the Ocean Floor with The Flying Apron Inn & Cookery. This breathtaking experience takes place in the few hours the tides of Burntcoat Head Park in the Bay of Fundy are out; diners enjoy a seafood feast right on the ocean floor. The four-course lunch rings in at $950 per person for piles of seafood, Nova Scotia cheeses, local berries and Tidal bay wine. The 2019 season, which runs from June 26 to September 8, is already sold out and the waitlist is full.

The free spirit ripple effect has a big impact on the local surrounding businesses as well. Yule says that of the seven to 10 partnerships they enter each year, those businesses work with six others. The proof is in the pudding, or should we say wine? Avondale Sky Wineries, which works with The Flying Apron on their ocean floor dinners, entered the program in 2018 with their own experience, Wine Lab Adventure, where guests tour the vineyard and then make their own signature blend of Tidal Bay wine.

LEFT: Tourism Nova Scotia’s World-class Experience EXCELLerator Program partner Tangled Garden presents the Gourmet Garden Party in Grand Pré. RIGHT: Lobster from a gourmet tasting station in the Tangled Garden (Photos: Tourism Nova Scotia)

Dinner on the beach with Cape LeHave Adventures (Photo: Tourism Nova Scotia)

The red island becomes Canada’s food island
While Nova Scotia’s considerably focused efforts to attract the free-spirited indulger have been formulaic (both literally and figuratively), Prince Edward Island’s shift towards culinary blissdom for food travelers has occurred naturally — thanks to some clever rebranding. Kent Thompson, director of Finance and Food Tourism for the Food Island Partnership, the industry-led organization helping grow the P.E.I. food industry, says the branding evolved organically.

“Honestly it started about probably 150 to 200 years ago,” says Thompson, “Even if you look back to the days of the Mi’kmaq, they used to come to P.E.I. to harvest mussels and stayed here in the summers. But the big shift was about 15 years ago; there was a recognition that agriculture, fisheries and tourism were our three biggest industries and they are all connected.”

“There were some branding efforts done around 2010 and then in 2015 Canada’s Food Island came together, really recognizing that it’s important to position ourselves as part of Canada and the media really picked it up. It was a natural title for us.”

Now it’s not unusual for the P.E.I. Potato Board to receive inquiries from people wanting to dig up their own potatoes. While most working farms can’t accommodate tourists strolling into the field to dig up those spuds, tour operators like Experience P.E.I. have developed tours and experiences for those eager food tourists. They offer everything from clam digging to lobster boat excursions.

The biggest shift from red island to Canada’s Food Island, however, is the increase in popularity of the P.E.I. Fall Flavours Festival. Now in its 13th year, Fall Flavours, which runs for five weeks through September, has put P.E.I. on the world culinary stage and extended the tourist season of the island where operators were only open a few months a year. “It was really a recognition with the department of tourism that September was an opportune time to be highlighting our product and also when there is capacity in the hotels,” says Thompson. “At the end of the day, it’s an economic development activity. Since Fall Flavours started, we now sell in the range of 20,000 more hotel rooms during September.”

More than half of the tickets sold for Fall Flavour signature events, like Chuck and Friends (a $165 intimate dinner with Chef Chuck Hughes in a converted church) or Dinner with Antonio Park in Montague ($100 per person), are purchased by off-island tourists. Thompson says the average off-island tourist will stay for an average of seven days and when they’re not attending events, they’ll visit markets, restaurants and other local businesses. By extending the festival into October this year, they hope it will extend the tourist season even more for operators.

Though the Food Island Partnership couldn’t provide exact data on the number of dollars coming in, Thompson says all you need is the anecdotal evidence: “You ask the local businesses ‘how are things’ and most of them say September is like July. September used to be like May,” he laughs.

Lobster rolls being prepared at the Fall Flavours Lobster Party (Photo: Stephen Harris Photography)

Seafood dishes abound at the Chuck and Friends event at The PEI Fall Flavours Festival. (Photo: Stephen Harris Photography)

The road-trip to delicious
Like Newfoundland, New Brunswick has no formalized food tourism organization. In 2016, the department of tourism, heritage and culture started to draw up a food tourism strategy to entice food tourists to New Brunswick, holding forums across the province for input. Ontario’s Culinary Tourism Alliance was hosted at several workshops to encourage local operators and producers to ramp up their culinary tourism offerings in hopes of lengthening the tourist season. However, in the official provincial 2017 Tourism Growth Strategy for 2018-2025, there was no formal mention of a food tourism strategy.

But like the other Atlantic provinces, there is a cornucopia of things to eat in New Brunswick with events, markets and restaurants organically showing off the province’s best. Two New Brunswick restaurants made Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants this year for the first time ever (cheers Rossmount Inn and Les Brumes Du Coude). The craft beer scene hath runneth over with more than 50 breweries at last count. Fils du Roy Distillery is Acadie’s first distiller and has garnered media attention from across the country.

The Tourism New Brunswick website details half a dozen road trips to enjoy across the province, highlighting foodie stops like the Boulangerie Pain du College in Memramcook along ‘The Acadian Joyride’ or the Magnetic Hill Winery on the ‘Fundy Treasures & Tides Ride.’

Because dining along the oceanside devouring the food of famous chefs from across Canada wasn’t enough to fill my boots, I also joined the other gourmands at The Feast—a seven-course family-style meal made by Newfoundland chefs at Roots, Rants and Roars. As giant plates of whole roasted Turbot and lamb vindaloo swirled around the tent full of picnic tables, my husband and I sat with our dining companions, a middle-aged couple from New Jersey who had recently purchased a home in Trinity, and chatted with them about travelling the world to eat and their former lives as restaurateurs. After the olive oil cake and plum tarts were cleared away we asked them what kept them coming back here. They couldn’t say enough kind things about the food, the culture surrounding it and the people who make it.

If an artist and a chiropractor from New Jersey who travel all over the world choose to buy a home and eat here every year, Newfoundland has to be doing food tourism right. There’s definitely something in the water (and the soil, and the air) here in Atlantic Canada. •

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