‘A great time for people to take a risk’: Tour guide sees hope for Santa Cruz food scene kneecapped by COVID
The pandemic sank many of the restaurants on Brion Sprinsock’s local food and architecture tours, and he won’t be resuming them until 2022. But like after the Great Recession, he sees opportunities for those willing and able to seize them.
If you’ve ever seen Brion Sprinsock in downtown Santa Cruz or Capitola Village, the odds are good that he wasn’t alone. In fact, he was probably at the front of a large group of smiling and relaxed people, speaking in evenly modulated tones and gesturing toward houses, buildings or other landmarks — because that’s what tour leaders do.
Sprinsock runs Santa Cruz & Capitola Food Tours, a popular walking/eating tour that combines learning about local architecture and history with noshing on goodies at local eateries.
To see him leading his tour groups among the Victorians on Walnut Street or at a corner table at a local restaurant, especially after more than a year when such things were forbidden, would certainly indicate that life in Santa Cruz is approaching normal again.
But it won’t happen this year.
Sprinsock will be back running his tours again, but not until the spring of 2022.
“People assume that we’re not touring because of social distancing, or because there’s too many people in the group,” said Sprinsock of his tours, which include a maximum of 12 people at a time. “But it’s also because the restaurants were under very strict limits about indoor dining. So there was just no way we could get 12 people inside a restaurant to sit down. It was just not happening.”
Sprinsock’s tours take about three-and-a-half hours on average, and are divided evenly between walking through neighborhoods and business districts, and tasting samples at local restaurants. Yet even if all pandemic restrictions would be lifted, as they are expected to be by the middle of June, the tour would still face a difficult-to-surmount obstacle: Many of the stops on the food tour no longer exist.
“In Santa Cruz, we lost three of our five tasting locations,” he said. “And so, people are saying, ‘Well, you could start touring again this summer when things open back up.’ But it takes time to develop a relationship with a restaurant — most of the locations that are on the tour have been with us for 10 years — and right now, the downtown food scene just isn’t robust enough for us to put together a quality tour.”
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When Sprinsock first put together the food tours 11 years ago, he expected that he would cater mostly to out-of-towners. But, he said, roughly two-thirds of his customers are county residents. He does both public tours and private tours for corporate clients.
“What I discovered was that a lot of people have moved to Santa Cruz in the last five years or so, and they don’t know much about their town. They work hard, and when they’re working, they tend to take the same roads and the same routes over and over again. So they really don’t explore their city as much as you think they would.”
Over the years, he has also gotten a lot of repeat customers, locals with out-of-town guests perhaps, or people who just want a refresher course on Santa Cruz.
“I’ve had people come on the tour six or seven times,” he said. “There’s a lot you’re not going to remember. There’s just too much information, like, ‘Wait, what’s the difference between a Queen Anne Victorian and an Italianate Victorian?’ And each time they come, they remember a different part.”
Nevertheless, as someone uniquely focused on and attuned to the changing business environment of downtown, Sprinsock is convinced that, when his tour returns, it will be in a different version of Santa Cruz.
“My job over the course of the next 12 months is to keep very close tabs on what new places open up, to try their food, go back several times. I remember from the previous recession in 2008. There were a lot of great new businesses opening, because rents were lower or you could negotiate rents. It’s really an opportunity. When there’s a lot of empty storefronts, that’s a great time for people to take a risk and open a new restaurant. So I expect in a year from now, we’ll have a much more robust scene.”
For more information on Santa Cruz & Capitola Food Tours, go here.