New York City has been having a love affair with the cupcake ever since Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw stopped into Magnolia Bakery to devour the yummy treat. The rest is red velvet cupcake history! New cupcakerys have been popping up all over the city—but who really makes the best cupcake in New York City? Sugartooth Tours is letting guests be the judge with its new “Cupcake Crawl Across Manhattan” tour.
On the tour, attendees experience six different cupcakes from some of the best bakeshops that Manhattan has to offer. This fun and original tour takes guests beyond big name chain bakeries and to some of the best kept cupcake secret locations in the city. Unlike most other food tours, Sugartooth Tours “Cupcake Crawl Across Manhattan” literally guides you through the streets of NYC, from the Upper East Side, to the East Village, to Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and more! Public transportation gives tour-goers the full New York experience, beyond just one neighborhood. No crumb is left behind!
Sugartooth Tours specializes in walking dessert food tours in New York City. On a Sugartooth tour, guides showcase the city’s best-hidden bakeries and off the beaten path gems where the locals go. Guides dish out equal helpings of delicious desserts and the city’s cultural and culinary history. Guests leave with a full stomach, and newfound knowledge of NYC’s best bakeries. Tours are small in size with no more than sixteen people per group for a conversational experience. Sugartooth Tours is dedicated to serving the sweet tooth in everyone, providing the best customer experience through high quality tastings, superior customer service, and friendly and informed licensed tour guides. Total Food recently sat down with Sugartooth’s owners, Sarah Rolleston and Allyson Tolbert to ask them about this unique foodservice experience.
Where did you two meet? Any foodservice management, culinary training, or food tour experience prior to Sugartooth?
We met when we were both performing in the national Broadway tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We were touring the nation for almost two years together, and loved taking food tours in the different cities we were in as a way to explore them. So you could say that we went from amateur dessert lovers to professional dessert connoisseurs. In addition, we both have a passion for baking, and so much of our culinary training was passed down from our families, and the love of sharing food with others.
There are plenty of food tours in NYC. What was the thinking behind Sugartooth Tours and how to you compete with other tours? What do your customers take away from the experience?
The actual idea to start our own food tour was because the tour didn’t exist and we wanted to take one. For Allyson’s birthday last July, Sarah wanted to take her on an ice cream tasting tour in NYC. A little research found that there wasn’t anyone offering this kind of tour. There are a couple other dessert tours in New York City, but our company is dedicated specifically to the sweet stuff. In this city there are so many people and so many visitors that there is room for a niche tour company like ours to become successful.
What makes our tours different is that we keep our tours conversational by capping them at 16 people (we can do larger groups on private tours). We keep a dialogue going with our guests and it is a wonderful learning experience as well as a culinary one. We like to say that we serve equal helpings of NYC history and culinary background with delicious servings of sweets.
Another difference between our tours and other dessert tours in the city is that we get off the beaten path. We don’t take guests to the big name bakery chains that they have already heard of. We take our guests where the locals go, to the best bakeries and dessert bars that the city has to offer. In fact, we have locals on our tours all of the time who are often surprised that they haven’t even heard of all the stops we go to.
For a vendor wanting to be included on the tour, are there any fees to be included? What’s in it for them and how do your tours help their business?
There are no fees to be included on our tours, it is really a win-win for everyone. We help the vendor by promoting them and bringing new guests to their establishment, who often come back later or make extra purchases on the tour. Some vendors like to offer an in store discount of 10% or something like that which always helps to encourage guests to buy more. We operate on a budget, so it is always helpful when a vendor can help us to stay on a budget while providing a high quality item from their menu. We work with each vendor to make the process as smooth as possible so we don’t take away from their regular customers. One of the things that makes our tour special is that when possible, we like to introduce our guests to a chef, baker, or owner. In New York City, there is such anonymity and we rarely know who makes our food. When we have the opportunity to introduce the creator to the consumer it is really a special and unique experience.
You both have professional careers on Broadway. How do you juggle your tours between your acting careers?
It isn’t easy! We were both tired of our usual “actor jobs” that we would do between shows: babysitting, waitressing, bartending, catering, etc. This is something that we can do around our schedules, and can continue to operate when we are both working in the theatre. This winter Allyson was on the national Broadway tour of “Catch Me If You Can,” and Sarah was doing a local NYC production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” We have a wonderful roster of licensed NYC tour guides and a support staff in place so that Sugartooth Tours can run and grow even while we continue to grow in our theatre careers as well.
Talk a little about your new tour “Cupcake Crawl Across Manhattan”, why cupcakes?
NYC has been obsessed with cupcakes for over a decade now! It’s really grown to be more than a trend, it is an industry in of itself with shops that dedicate themselves solely to cupcakes. There is a big debate over who makes the best cupcake in NYC, and we leave it up to our guests to decide. We go beyond the big name chains and go off the beaten path to take our guests to the best cupcakerys and bakeshops the city has to offer. One thing that is especially unique about our Cupcake Crawl is that we will utilize public transportation so we can literally go across NYC in search of the best cupcake. We go from the upper east side, across to Hell’s Kitchen, down to Chelsea, and finish up in the West Village. Again, on all of our tours guests not only have a chance to eat some of the best desserts in NYC, they’ll also learn about each neighborhood’s unique history and the culinary history of NYC.
With a somewhat unstable economy, do you feel food tours are the best economical way for trying new restaurants/bakeries in different areas of NYC, for one low price?
Taking a food tour is a great way to explore the city in any economic climate. We save guests the time of having to research the best places in the city and find out how to get to each and everyone of them. One thing Sugartooth Tours offers that makes us a more economical option than that of our competitors, is that we combine history with food. Guests won’t need to take a historical tour in the neighborhoods we feature, because we give a complete picture of the area’s history while going to different bakeshops. We also offer unique insight that you wouldn’t get from just walking in and ordering something off the menu. We like to showcase the best items from each establishment, so we save you the trouble of trying to figure out what is best. We’ve tasted it all, so we know!
What marketing tools, techniques, or implementation of policies and procedures are you using to grow the business model?
For us it is all about customer service. We are both passionate about providing the highest quality customer experience and we do that through high quality tastings and with our licensed, friendly, and informed tour guides. We have focused on the internet and press to grow our business. For example, our facebook fans and twitter followers are given special offers from time to time. But nothing is better than word of mouth!
How do you price your tour? What factors are taken into consideration?
Most of our tours are $50 per person and include all tastings. Most people will feel full, and in fact, most of our guests take some of their tastings home for later! We price our tours based on the number of tastings and the length of the tour. You’ll even find that compared to other food tours, you are often getting a bit of a deal with Sugartooth Tours.
Any trial and errors with the development of Sugartooth? What are some bumps you’ve hit along the way and how did you resolve them?
Thankfully, there haven’t been any major bumps in the road, but it has been a learning process becoming a small business owner. There are many fun parts of owning a food tour company -like meeting new people all the time, and tasting great desserts (for quality control purposes, of course!), but are a lot of logistics, legal, tax, insurance, and otherwise that any business deals with.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
I think it is important to be passionate about what you are doing. We were tired of our old survival jobs and wanted to do something that we were in control of and take our destinies into our own hands. We are passionate about food, history, travel, and the customer experience, so for us this was a great fit. For us it was a great thing to partner up because you have double the hands to work with and to divy up the work. It’s always nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. That being said, in addition to being passionate, make sure you can commit to the idea, know that it is going to get tough sometimes, and come up with a plan with goals and how to achieve them.