Exploring the Mission’s Tourism Business

A tourist group browses Clarion Alley.

A tourist group browses Clarion Alley.

It’s summertime, and that means the tourists have arrived. You’ve probably spotted them out in the late afternoons or on weekends – all types, being led around the neighborhood by someone who knows more about it than they do. But the days of your standard tour offerings are over, what with guides charging people to skip restaurant lines or to judge hipsters people-watch at the park.

To see just what these explorations have to offer, we checked out some neighborhood tours.

It’s All About the Food

Perhaps you’ve heard that food is popular here in the Mission?

Let’s start with Avital Tours by Avital Ungar, who started her food exploration company a year ago. Twice a week for three hours she takes people on a tour of five local restaurants and food businesses. She introduces her clients to owners and chefs who tell stories of how they got started, from Scott Youkilis at Hog & Rocks to Sarah Dvorak at Mission Cheese.

But before the grubbing, Ungar’s tour meets outside the Women’s Building, where she explains the story behind its beautiful mural. She aims, she says, to combine art and food.

“It’s a trendy Mission tour,” she says, one that’s really about hitting “the hot spots.”

For this she charges $64 per person. “I’m on the high end of tour experiences,” she explains, one that you’ll never find on sites like Goldstar. “When we go to Bi-Rite Creamery, you’re not going to wait in line.”

Mike and Julie make their own empanadas inside Venga Empanadas on Ungar's tour.

It’s true. On a recent Tuesday evening with Julie and Mike — a married couple from Raleigh, North Carolina, here for Julie’s birthday — the group skips the crowd outside, VIP-style. It’s clear Ungar knows the people at each of her stops well.

“It’s all about storytelling and the story about the neighborhood,” she says. “No other companies are doing that.”

Oh, but they are. At least 17 tours that take people through the Mission in one way or another — including some that introduce customers to restaurant owners and chefs — are currently listed on Vayable.com, a site where anyone can offer a tour.

One who does just that is Lisa Rogovin from Edible Excursions, who started her Mission tour in 2010. Every Saturday she takes people to traditional Mission spots like La Victoria Bakery and El Farolito, as well as to newer places like Mission Minis and Humphry Slocombe. Included is a half-hour tour of Balmy Alley, led by docents from Precita Eyes.

It’s Latino Mission meets gentrification via food tour.

“I’ve gotten phone calls from people in the city that people like me are ruining the Mission,” says Rogovin, who lives in Noe Valley. “I feel that that’s the opposite. I’m bringing people, customers, money into the Mission.”

Rogovin charges $75 per person, with 12 to 15 clients per excursion; tours last three hours. She hosts one every Saturday, providing clients with her “insider perspective.”

But there’s more to it than that, she says. People have this perception that the Mission is unsafe. “I want to educate the public that the Mission isn’t what they think it is.”

“Let’s look at the history [of the Mission] and understand it,” she says — and consume way too many calories along the way.

Trying to Stand Out

Meet Lynn Tao, who hosts multiple tours in the Mission.

“Everyone will go to Tartine and Bi-Rite,” says Tao, who is unemployed and offers tours as a source of income. “Let me show you something you don’t know.” It’s a local’s perspective — hers. She lives close to Dolores Park and promises a damn good time.

If you read Uptown Almanac, you might remember her as the host of a tour called Snark in the Park, with a $30 price tag and a tagline that reads, “I came, I drank, I judged.”

“If you’re going to hang out at the park, hang out and talk shit about people,” she says.

Tourists who visit Dolores Park on their own won’t know what to do, Tao says, but she can help them fix that, because she’s snarky.

“I just point out different characters in the park. It’s easy to script,” she says. “They’re always there – the guy in hoodie, those awful-looking people doing Frisbee.”

Why charge $30? For the wine and cheese, of course. Plus, she does have to spend two hours with strangers. “It’s not like I’m hanging out with my friends.”

It’s not her most popular tour, though. Actually, no one has ever gone on it, which makes her sad.

Tao gets more people on her Local Mission Bites tour, which visits El Papalote and local hot dog vendors. Her clients are people from Mountain View who work at Facebook and Google.

She’s brainstorming new tours, too, like a Mission scavenger hunt with “spot a hipster” bingo cards. “That’s assuming these things can be popular.”

Is there a message behind it?

“I don’t know, I’m not trying to make fun of the bourgeoisie or the hipsters,” she says. “There’s a lot that I’m not above, but it’s just for fun. Tourists should have fun, and by dragging them into local flavor, they’re in on the joke.”

Hipsters aren’t the only people she wants to involve. There’s another side of the Mission – the immigrants, the service workers – that she doesn’t understand. But she wants to.

Where do the baristas and waitresses go after dark?

“Or the ladies that go to church, the Mexican immigrant population. What markets do they go to when they want to buy products? They don’t go to Bi-Rite. Do they go to Mi Ranchero? Those mariachi guys — where do they go? What’s their route?”

She wants you along for her discovery, too.

“The challenge is to curate and give a peek into that experience without being insulting,” she says. “I wonder if it’s possible.”

Locals Are Coming, Not Foreigners

Ninety percent of Rogovin’s customers are Bay Areas residents, she says, from corporate groups looking for fun to people who have lived in Pacific Heights for eight years and have never been to the Mission.

That’s what other tour guides say, too, and according to the San Francisco Travel Association, that’s accurate: the top domestic metro region of origin for tourists visiting the city is the San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose area.

One group that has experienced a rise in international visitors is Precita Eyes, which has been offering tours since 1977.

“The publicity or word has spread to other countries,” says Patricia Rose, the group’s mural tour coordinator. “People come in after reading travel guides from Hong Kong.”

“We can usually cruise for a year on something like that,” says Rose, referring to business from media exposure.

Rose says her work at Precita Eyes goes beyond just coordinating tours. “We’re guardians of ancient museums.”

Tours Can Benefit Local Businesses — Except When They Don’t

Manuel Godino of Venga Empanadas says that Ungar’s tours bring up to 24 new people per week into his shop, and he knows that for her clients, money is not an issue. He covers half the cost of the two empanadas he provides to her clients in the hope that it will bring more customers to his shop.

“You never know where the next business comes from,” he says. They might tell their friends about his empanadas.

It’s hard to quantify how many clients of such tours actually return to the businesses. Both Ungar and Rogovin are working on ways to track that.

Rogovin says she pays businesses like La Cocina to speak with her customers and let them try hands-on cooking because she wants to have a professional relationship, where her visits are treated like an appointment. She estimates that she brings 1,500 people a year to these businesses; in exchange for their time, she pays them at least $3,500 a year.

But some food business owners, like Karen Heisler, a co-owner of Mission Pie, have stopped working with tour groups.

“Those kinds of events are designed to happen when we’re busiest,” she says. Only two people at Mission Pie know the history and values of the business, and they just don’t have the time or energy to cater to tourists every weekend, she says.

Her highest priority is the locals — the real locals, from the neighborhood.

“I could say business is business, but we really do aspire to and try to be a member of the community that we’re in.”

La Palma, on the other hand, works with Rogovin and two other tour companies, explaining its handmade masa and letting tourists sample nopal huaraches — not so much for the money but as a way to educate others.

When people think of Mexican food, they usually think taco or burrito, says Theresa Pasion, a manager at La Palma.

“They never see tortillas being made,” she says. “It exposes people who don’t have that experience or understanding of Mexican food.”

Mike, who is from Raleigh and is in San Francisco for his second time, chose Ungar’s tour for himself and his wife because he wanted to experience something more than the Golden Gate Bridge, and because it’s focused on local businesses.

“Local is far better than franchises. Sometimes when you travel you might just go to Subway, and that’s not doing anything for the local economy.”

There Are Many Missions Within the Mission

There are tourists who come here and walk down Valencia rather than Mission Street because someone’s warned them against it. Then there are the Tartiners, and those who stick to 24th Street for murals at Balmy Alley, taquerías, sweets at Dynamo Donuts and a stop at a mercado, where they buy spicy mango lollipops by the bag. There are the folks staying in a hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf who are too embarrassed to say so, and those staying on 20th Street in a room they’ve rented through AirBnb.

It’s as if everyone has their Mission within the Mission.

Mike, for example, came on Ungar’s tour because he and his wife “like Hispanic food.” There’s not so much of that on this tour, though.

The empanadas are the only ethnic part, Ungar says, and she tells Mike that the tour is not Latin-focused because she wants to show how the neighborhood is changing. “It’s not all taquerías, and I want to do it justice,” she says.

“I don’t know what I expected,” says Mike. “There are so many different cultural foods here.”

“It’s an area really interesting to explore. It’s not your typical stuff.”

Tourism to the Mission May or May Not Be Growing

No one, not even the San Francisco Travel Association, is really sure if more people are visiting the Mission. It’s not in the top three neighborhoods visited (that distinction goes to Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown), and the association doesn’t even recommend that you hit the Mission until your second visit to the city.

What the Travel Association’s Laurie Armstrong can tell you is that the growing number of restaurants and bars in the Mission is exactly what does bring people here. And 2012 will bring record numbers of visitors to the city, according to the association, because of events like the San Francisco Street Food Festival, right here on Folsom Street.

But there is anecdotal confirmation that tourism is growing in the neighborhood, like what sometimes happens to Rogovin around midday on Saturdays. There she is, like always, in Balmy Alley, while her group is learning the history behind the murals. Just then, another tour group comes through. They’re in such close proximity that the guides have to shout over one another in order for their group to hear.

“It’s funny,” she says. “It validates that, great, there’s a market. There’s interest.”

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9 Comments

  1. Half of me thinks this is great if it brings in new business for local businesses, and the other half of me wants to give a big eye roll. What kind of person takes a tour of a neighborhood that they could explore themselves? Some of this article made me cringe.

    • Edgy

      Well put. Didn’t know I was living in an amusement attraction. I work at a non profit and feel more like a low paid carney now than ever.

  2. shotwell resident

    Yes it sure would be great if this brought in new business for local businesses. (The tour operators are “working on it.”) Meanwhile I think the ONLY thing we can say for sure is that it’s bringing in business for the tour operators. $64 to Avital to walk around the Mission and eat its food and SHE DOESN’T EVEN PAY FOR THE FOOD?!?! Venga covers half the cost of the empanadas?!! I bet she has a nice profit margin. Seems more exploitative than all the groupon-like sites.

    • Avital

      Hi Shotwell resident.

      Thanks so much for your comments. The $64 price does include a full meal – we visit 5 different restaurants in 3 hours – and all of the food is included in the ticket price. Just to clarify the misinformation, Venga empanadas offers our guests 15% off their next purchase to encourage them to come back.

      We have lots of Mission locals on our tours who often tell me they learn a lot about their own neighborhood history and its murals – as well as return to the businesses because they had personal interactions with the restaurant owners. Our goal is to authentically tell the stories of the people in the neighborhood. I invite you to join me on a tour sometime – and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised about all that is in your backyard :-)

      Best regards,
      Avital Ungar
      Owner, Avital Tours

  3. Mister Big

    This article makes me sad. We are becoming the Marina.

    • marco

      How does this make the Mission like the Marina? People don’t go to tour the Marina. The point of this article is that the Mission is a vibrant neighborhood with interesting art, food and history. It makes more sense to say “we are becoming the Latin Quarter in Paris” or something like that — a place that is rich enough with history, art and culture that makes tourists want to visit and learn about the area.

  4. bob

    Excellent, we need the business. Bring on the rich ladies and the token empanada tours. I’d be surprised if it brings down crime but what the heck.

  5. Mlocal

    I have lived in the Mission for 20 years and took a Mission food tour last year. Don’t remember the name of the company but it wasn’t one of these Noe-Marina-Yuppy tours, the guide was from the Mission and we went to almost all ethnic places. It was really amazing. I also took a history tour of the Mission and was surprised at how much I didn’t know. However, one of these tours in the article, you couldn’t pay me enough to take one.

  6. Great article! I think it is super to read about people coming to San Francisco and seeking out the mission as a place to enjoy themselves.

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