Doing the business

‘There is no good food in Ireland’: Meet the Galway food business proving tourists wrong

Galway Food Tours has five full-time employees and is planning to go nationwide

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Picture: Nathalie Márquez-Courtney

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours has a unique view of Irish gastronomy. She set up her business in 2016 and initially aimed it at French tourists, hoping to show them that there actually is good food in Ireland, thank you very much.

Dignam had moved to France at the age of eight, and studied culinary arts there before returning to Ireland.

“In France, people would say ‘there’s no good food in Ireland’, so I really wanted to show them what we were doing. There was a lot of energy starting to brew in food back then, but people just weren’t aware of what was going on in Ireland,” Dignam says.

“I had the grain of an idea, but before I set anything up I worked with Charles Guilbaud in a restaurant in Dublin, and then ran the Cocoa Atelier chocolate shop on Drury Street. It was there that I came across Fab Food Trails - Eveleen Coyle, the founder, came in with a tour and I just thought it was really fabulous to be able to explain to people what we were doing and our ethos, and everything about the chocolates as well.”

Guests on a tour with Galway Food Tours. Picture: Julia Dunin

And so, inspired by Coyle and Fab Food Trails, the idea for Galway Food Tours expanded. But why Galway?

“I really love it. I love the connection between restaurants and suppliers - the food scene in Dublin is great, but I never got to meet all the producers,” she says. “Here I get to meet all of them. I really enjoy the closeness, and the fact that once you meet the person, you really get to understand what they’re about, what their ethos is about, their story and what they do.”

Once Dignam moved west, she launched her first tour, which was delivered in French. Now most of her tours are conducted through English, with lots of American and Canadian as well as Irish and French tourists taking part.

Galway Food Tours are now so popular that Dignam is supported by five employees, two full-time and three part-time, with several tour options available, including whiskey tours, food and cycling tours, arthouse cinema and food tours, and more.

Her bread and butter, however, is the daytime tour, which lasts several hours and takes guests to a range of different outlets around the city.

“On the daytime tour you get fed and watered, so it could replace a lunch. People often do them in the morning, then they’re free in the afternoon,” Dignam says. “We’ve really seen the whiskey tours take off this year too, they’re very popular.”

During lockdown, Dignam created a self-guided tour in the shape of the Galway Food Tours guide, a pocket book that highlights 40 of her and her partner Gosia Letowska’s favourite spots in the city.

“We really wanted to continue our support for the community, so we thought a pocket book where you could sort of do your own tour would be a great idea,” Dignam says.

“All you had to do was give a voucher into the business and you’d get a taste of their products - a coffee in a coffee shop, or a pastry in a bakery. It wasn’t necessarily to make money, but to show our support and to show people we were still here. Then we developed a story app, so at each place people could scan a QR code to find out a little about the business.

“We had Natalie McCambridge from McCambridges food store and café talking about her family-run business, Danny Doughnut from the market talking about his dough and so on. It was to help people get a feel for what we do and immerse themselves in it without actually being on a physical tour.”

Now that restrictions have eased, it’s business as usual at Galway Food Tours, but Dignam has her eyes on the future.

“I want to start longer tours where a small group, a chef and me would travel around Ireland to the chef’s favourite places. We’d bring them to cool spots where they can stay, eat and drink, and the chef would get to cook. It would be really high-end, would look at food through the chef’s eyes,” she says. “That’s what we’re working on right now, so watch this space.”

Dignam’s tours start at €65, and corporate packages are available. See galwayfoodtours.com for details