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How to Gift (or Get) a Great Food Experience

Cooking classes, food tours, and wine-tasting experiences are popular experiential gifts — for good reason

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I’ve always been a fan of an experience-based gift. You want to take me to my favorite restaurant as my birthday present? I’m all in. Yes, I’m that millennial who prefers to spend my money on experiences over physical products, and apparently I’m in the majority: 72 percent of millennials feel the same way, according to a 2016 study.

With newish platforms like Airbnb Experiences and EatWith, there are more options than ever for food experiences that go beyond just a nice meal at a restaurant. Private street food tours, intimate cooking classes, wine tasting classes, and bread-making workshops are some common offerings. But it can be a little confusing when you want to gift an experience. How do you choose which experience is best for your recipient? How does gratuity work? I spoke with three professionals from different aspects of the industry to get a primer on how to gift (and get!) food experiences like a pro.

How to gift a food experience

A man stands in front of a group at a cooking class. Alena A / Shutterstock

1. Think about the recipient’s likes, tastes, and interests

Everyone (probably) loves at least one type of food, but there’s a different level of engagement at work when choosing food experiences as gifts. Some people might be super into the idea of trying different cuisines, but not really want to walk around during a formal tour. Some people might want to become an expert about one specific cuisine by taking cooking classes. Others might appreciate reliving a recent trip, or prepare for an upcoming one.

”I sometimes get people who are like, ‘Hey, I was just in Southeast Asia for my honeymoon two years ago, and I saw you offer this great tour of Elmhurst, and I want to re-experience that,’” says Joe DiStefano, a food writer and tour guide focusing on different neighborhoods in Queens, New York. He recommends his food tours to travel enthusiasts or locals who haven’t explored the neighborhood. Is there one friend who floods your Instagram feed with pictures from different restaurants? They might be a fit for this style of tour.

Ali Killam, a trend expert at Airbnb, which launched its Experiences arm in November 2016, encourages the gift giver to look for experiences that combine food with other passions. “The New York City food tour. The Turkish coffee experience. A quartet music concert experience that also provides dinner and bites,” he lists. “Very niche experiences are becoming increasingly popular on Airbnb.” Is your friend interested in astrology? This Turkish Coffee Fortune-Telling Workshop might be perfect.

You can gift food experiences for one person, but they are even more ideal for a group: couples, families, co-workers. Take that into account — will your recipient definitely want to bring along a spouse or a kid? — as you browse the options. And consider the location: Even if the experience seems perfect, if it’s inconvenient for the recipient to physically get to where a tour starts, it’s not necessarily an ideal gift.

2. Read the descriptions thoroughly

Edouard Massih, a private chef and caterer mostly focusing on Middle Eastern flavors, offers cooking classes in his spacious kitchen in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Massih advises paying attention to the little details in the description, since each offering is vastly different.

”You should make sure that it’s private or not private,” he says of cooking classes specifically. “Where is it hosted? Is it BYOB, or are drinks included? What’s on the menu? Are you going to be having appetizers and dessert before classes or only eating what’s taught? Those are the types of things you should look at.”

Be sure to look for keywords, depending on the recipient’s interests, when choosing. If your friends are not social butterflies who thrive among strangers, provide them with a private experience: Some chefs are flexible with private lesson locations. (For public cooking classes, recipients usually have to travel to a designated place.) Your friends who have a gorgeous kitchen might prefer having private cooking classes in their own space.

And pay attention to what you get for the cost of the reservation. Most food tours include food, but not necessarily a full meal. Are the tours more educational, with samples? Your friend who expected a full-on feast might be disappointed.

3. Read the reviews, but remember they’re not everything

Killam stresses the importance of reading reviews. There are hundreds of reviews for popular Airbnb experiences: a “handmade pasta with grandma” course in Italy boasts more than 900 reviews averaging 4.99 stars; this “retired NYPD gangster crime and food walk” has over 1,200 reviews averaging 4.85 stars. With both the star rating system and written reviews, gifters can have a clear picture of the effectiveness of the experiences.

”They’re a great way to get a sense of what people get,” says Killam. “They’re a tremendous way to see: Were these groups booking the experience? Was this an individual? Was the reviewer a local or a traveler? It’s really great to get those different perspectives.”

Reviews, however, are subjective. Don’t let a few negative reviews stop you if the description fits what you’re looking for. I would avoid gifting new experiences with no reviews, but if the descriptions are too good to pass up, consider joining your recipients and taking part in the experience, as well. If it ends up being terrible, at least you and your friends will have the memories together — and a fun story to tell after the fact.

4. Transfer the experience to make things easy

Airbnb offers gift cards, but not all platforms do. No matter what platform you purchase from, it’s easier to buy the experience under your own name and transfer it to your recipient after the transaction.

The best way to avoid any confusion is to be in touch with the host directly: Airbnb supports a direct communication channel through its application, but that’s not always the case for experiences found on other platforms. To avoid any potential problems, be sure to get in touch with the host so that your recipient can enjoy the experience stress-free. And, as the gift giver, it’s a nice courtesy to confirm a few days before the event to finalize all the details. No one wants to be the person who’s not on the list when the tour starts.

5. Understand different pricing

What factors into the price of a one-off experience? Location, drink options, quantity of food, and more. For example, Massih’s Greek chicken souvlaki class starts at $85 per person, with BYOB options, while this sushi-making class with a Japanese sushi chef in London costs $26 per person. They’re both cooking classes, but different ingredient costs and the premise of the course factor into the price.

Locations play a big factor as well: Some chefs might have to rent out a separate space. But a variety of price points means everyone can find something that fits their budget. “You can find anything from a food tour for $20 to huge, multi-day, adventure-type experiences on the whole other end of the spectrum,” Killam says. ”No matter what your price point is, there’s truly something for everyone.”

6. Shop around on different platforms

Besides Airbnb, there are various platforms to widen your options: EatWith, CozyMeal, IfOnly, Groupon, and FoodsofNYTours are some of the most popular websites offering food-focused experiences. Many tour guides and chefs use multiple platforms, and both DiStefano and Massih agree that Instagram is a new, potentially powerful place for new customers to discover their services.

”People are asking me about cooking classes on my Instagram,” Massih says. “I’ve been exposing my brand different ways from demos to caterings, so I think those have sparked up interest.” DiStefano also uses his Instagram as an extension of reviews, where potential customers can see DiSteafno’s food adventures before deciding to join him on tours.

How to get a food experience

A man holding an umbrella stands in front of a large group of people assembled on the sidewalk. Felipe Mahecha / Shutterstock

1. Be open-minded

If you’ve never done one of these experiences before, be grateful that your friend has decided to gift you something unique and memorable instead of a $20 bacon-scented candle that you will probably never use. Don’t do too much research before going into the experience, but if you’re concerned about food allergies, contact the host in advance rather than the day of the event. You don’t want to be the “difficult” one, especially if the experience is offered in a group setting.

2. Check whether it’s BYOB

Massih’s cooking classes are mostly BYOB, but some cooking classes might have different rules about alcohol. Be sure to ask the host, whether it’s a class or a food tour, how you can bring a drink in advance if that’s of interest. Most likely than not, there will be a way to booze up the experience. And if you are taking a cooking class, take the extra step and ask the instructor for pairing recommendations. Massih, for example, offers seasonal cocktail mixes for an extra charge.

3. Engage with the host

The host is there to educate and entertain you, so the more actively you participate, the better. If you’re taking a cooking class, soak up the instructor’s expertise and ask questions: What are their favorite grocery stores? What knives do they use? This is the time.

If you’re on a food tour, ask the guide about their other favorite restaurants. You likely won’t be able to taste too many items on a tour with multiple stops, but ask the guide for their other favorites at each restaurant, as well.

4. Prepare to tip at least 20 percent

Tipping might be one of the most confusing parts of gifting a food experience. Because most experiences have to be transferred to the recipient, it’s hard to hide the cost. As a gift-giver, you could elect to include a pre-paid tip separately to make sure that the recipient doesn’t pay a dime; if not, make it clear to your recipient that they should prepare the tip, if appropriate.

Both DiStefano and Massih agree that a tip of 15 to 20 percent would be appropriate, though not strictly required. Cash is the preferred method, but nowadays, Venmo is also acceptable. “People who are going to tip are going to tip, and people who won’t, they won’t,” says DiStefano. “But this is a service. It’s like going out for a meal. So it’s certainly appropriate to tip, but I don’t like to be heavy-handed about it.”

Massih also has received tips that range from 18 to 20 percent. “I feel like most of the time when it’s a present, and you feel like you haven’t put anything into it, then you’re happy to tip,” he says. “But, if you’re buying a cooking class yourself, I think you probably would like to skip on the tipping.”

5. Spread the word

If you enjoyed the experience, add reviews or share your experience on social media, and be sure to tag the tour guide or the instructor. It may seem a little tedious, but reviews from participants become excellent marketing materials for the hosts. Since a lot of them are entrepreneurs, going a little extra mile with sharing and documenting your experiences will be much appreciated.

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