When Scottsdale restaurateur Peter Kasperski showed up at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, he found a lot of traveling gourmands that knew his hometown.
Next year Kasperski plans to set up shop at the annual culinary gathering to pitch the city as a fine dining destination.
“I talked to so many people who (previously visited) Scottsdale and plan to come back,” he said. “You are battling the perception that for a lot of people it’s just a sleepy desert village, but those of us who live here know it’s vibrant. Nationally you hear more about Scottsdale’s restaurants now. We’re approaching the tipping point.”
Culinary tourism, selecting a vacation destination specifically for its dining delights, is one of the hot new tourism trends.
A study by the Travel Industry Association of America completed in February found that activities centered around food and wine drove travel plans for 27 million Americans during the last three years.
Besides dining in gourmet restaurants, the so-called culinary tourists took cooking classes and winery tours, visited farmers markets, and attended food and wine festivals like the Aspen event.
The national study also found that culinary-focused travelers are younger, richer and better educated than tourists for whom food is secondary.
And they spend a lot of money to indulge their culinary taste buds.
“On average, food travelers spend $1,194 per trip, with over one-third — 36 percent or $425 — of their travel budget going towards food-related activities,” the study reported. “Those considered to be ‘deliberate’ food travelers — culinary activities were the key reason for trip — tend to spend a significantly higher dollar amount of their overall travel budget on food-related activities — $1,271 average trip cost and $593 or 50 percent spent on food-related activities.”
Arizona ranked relatively low on the surveyed foodies’ agendas.
The state tied with Michigan and Virginia for 13th in a list of top destination choices by gallivanting gourmets, with 2 percent of the study respondents naming Arizona.
That’s compared with top-ranking California, named by 14 percent of the study
respondents. Florida was second favorite, with 10 percent of their votes.
But the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau is out to change minds, said Laura McMurchie, vice president of the city’s tourism agency.
Five years ago, the bureau teamed up with Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines and established such events as the Celebrity Chef international Golf Tournament to draw the attention of the country’s top chefs. And those who attend pay attention to where the gourmet cooks go and what they say about it.
Four years ago, the visitors’ bureau established a Dining Advisory Committee, which Kasperski heads, to figure out how best to promote Scottsdale to the culinary crowd, McMurchie said.
The committee beefed up the dining component on the bureau’s Web site and pitched the city’s culinary credits to travel writers, McMurchie said.
A spread in Food & Wine magazine came directly from the group’s work, she said.
It was just a matter of attracting the magazine’s attention.
Kasperski, who has his own share of renowned eateries, including Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, said Scottsdale has an abundance of independent — not chain — fine restaurants and renowned chefs.
In fact, Sea Saw chef and partner Nobu Fukuda is a winner of two prestigious awards, Food & Wine Best New Chef and James Beard Best Chef Southwest.
And Kasperski has four more unusual restaurant concepts on tap for the Southbridge development in downtown Scottsdale.
But he said there are a lot more fine dining opportunities for visitors to explore in Scottsdale and he’s out to promote them all.
“It’s a convergence for us,” he said.
The more and better finger-licking pickings, the more it enhances Scottsdale’s national and international reputation.
He’s hoping the rest of the Valley jumps on the culinary bandwagon. The fine dining trend is flourishing in Phoenix, “but not at the same level as Scottsdale,” he said.
And in Tempe, Town Lake is “up and coming,” but not yet achieving sufficient culinary status to be a destination driver.
“The biggest thing about cultural tourism is having one-of-a-kind experiences, like Nobu (Fukuda) at See Saw, Chris Bianco (of Pizzeria Bianco) or Robert McGrath (founder of Roaring Fork) at REM,” he said. “We’ve got a nice mix now. It’s an electric time.”