Off the Beaten Path Food Tours: join a Central Square weeknight food tour

Lizzie and Sam Bell, co-owners of Off the Beaten Path Food Tours. Courtesy of Lizzie Bell.

By Gioia Guarino

Boston University News Service

Off the Beaten Path Food Tours shut down many options during the 2020 pandemic. Co-owners Lizzie and Sam Bell decided to keep their business alive by expanding tour experiences that feature local businesses in different Greater Boston neighborhoods. 

The Somerville residents began Off the Beaten Path in 2017 to bridge their passion between food and community. The new Central Square Cambridge Food and Mural Arts Weeknight Tour, an extension of the weekend option, began this spring. Viale, Shojo and Pagu are the featured restaurants. 

Sean Jung, Ph.D., a Boston University Hospitality professor, said that the tourism industry significantly declined during the pandemic. 

“The U.S. is currently one of the slowest countries to full recovery, which some predict that the full recovery will happen in 2025,” said Jung. 

Off the Beaten Path paused tours in Boston, Lowell and Northampton due to restaurant shutdowns and a lack of sign-ups. Despite these losses, the company’s presence in Cambridge and Somerville has expanded. They have continued to host tours in Harvard Square, Central Square and Union Square. 

Jung said food service, entertainment, recreation and travel planning saw a significant pandemic-induced drop among the affected industries, including Massachusetts. 

“Spending in 2020 for food service totaled $2.5 billion, a 48.7% decrease from 2019 and a decrease of 41.2% from 2016,” according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism 2021 report. 

As a smaller business in the post-pandemic tourism competitor pool, Bell and her husband centered their business strategy around the unique offerings of the paths less traveled by locals and tourists. 

The offered tours spotlight local restaurants and share hidden gem destinations compared to larger, popular tour groups. Each participant signs up for a tour with only a general itinerary idea, creating a surprise factor.

“When Assembly Row opened, and more chain restaurants started proliferating the squares, we thought it was important to showcase to locals and guests that there are so many interesting small businesses among us that we should support,” Bell said. 

Caroline He, the Office Coordinator intern at Cambridge Office for Tourism and a BU graduate, said that Cambridge tourism still suffers from the effects of the pandemic. 

“Tourism has slowly normalized as restaurants reopened with more outdoor dining options, and Starlight Square outdoor events offer more entertainment options,” He said. 

He said that visitors are returning to the city, but not to the same extent as pre-covid. Many Cambridge businesses are understaffed due to the fear of unemployment by many former employees. 

He attended an Off the Beaten Path weekend tour in the Central Square area of Cambridge. 

“I went on the Central Square Food and Mural tour last year and absolutely loved it. It’s not only an activity for travelers but also for people living in Cambridge or nearby cities.” 

Kris Chandler, Assistant General Manager of Viale in Cambridge, said participating in the Central Square Food tour has been a rewarding partnership. 

“We were approached by Evan to join the tour as a means of gaining some exposure in the community as well as to highlight our graffiti alley as part of the overall Central Square vibe,” said Chandler.

Chandler said that restaurant space is set aside for the tour group, and they provide tastings of their signature dishes and historical connection to the Central Square area. 

Tour participants enjoy bites of Viale dishes, learn about Central Square and visit the iconic graffiti alley. 

“We’ve gained even more exposure thanks to our partnership with Off the Beaten Path and continue to see guests of the tour return as patrons. It’s been a great and fruitful partnership for everyone,” said Chandler. 

Tatiana Padilla, a Postdoctoral Researcher Fellow at BU and Instagram blogger, collaborated with the company. Padilla attended tours and documented the experience on social media. Padilla’s Instagram account is “Asharedadventure,” with almost 10k followers. 

Padilla’s social media content focuses on the best Boston activities for date nights. Padilla attended many Off the Beaten Path tours and shared her experience with her followers. 

“I loved the balance of food tasting and history about the neighborhood, the local restaurants, and the food – whether you’re new or established, there’s so much amazing history in Boston,” Padilla posted to Instagram. 

Social media collaborations have been a game changer for “underdogs” of the industry looking to expand outreach efforts. Bell often collaborates with fellow food and tourism-centered accounts to promote the tours across social media channels. 

“As an entrepreneur post-COVID, it has been hard for me to connect the dots,” Bell said. 

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