A friend told me just about the most unique and jaw-dropping story about a meal she and her husband enjoyed in Vietnam a few months ago. The concierge at their hotel understood they craved an off-the-beaten-track kind of experience for dinner one evening, and sent them by taxi to a small home on a residential street. There was a pack of lazy dogs at the front gate, and a chicken or two strolling around. Other than that, nothing: no lights, no sounds, no people. Their taxi driver rang the bell on the gate, returned to his car, and then drove off.
Within a few seconds, lights popped on, the gate opened, and they were met warmly by a smiling woman who beckoned them inside. And then they ate the best meal of their lives.
Stephanie Lawrence sets up these scenarios! Her company facilitates meaningful travel by finding and vetting the best home cooks, and then connecting them with travelers to share private, authentic food experiences in people’s homes around the world. Traveling Spoon books meals, cooking classes, and local market tours, all with locals in their homes. I can’t imagine a more intimate way to get to know a country and culture than by sharing a home-cooked meal with a local. I really can’t.
I’m so drawn to the idea of meaningful travel, aren’t you? I hope you’re nodding yes, and that you’ll keep nodding when I ask if you’d like to walk through a day with this meaningful travel maven. Welcome, Stephanie!
Most days start with me reaching down and petting Albus, our dog of four years who always winds up sleeping between me and Craig, my husband of two years and partner of nine. Petting Albus just so will make him turn upside down and stick both front legs into the air, which inevitably makes me and Craig laugh. Every time. It is an excellent way to wake up, with a dog.
I tend to reach for my phone which is next to my head, and check email immediately upon waking. It is a bad habit that I am currently in the process of and so far about 50% successful at breaking. I want to know what’s going on, I have a company to run, but I am also trying to draw boundaries and stay sane.
I am 30 years old and live in San Francisco with Craig and Albus, and (on some nights) my co-founder Aashi. I founded a startup two years ago, after a career in non-profit marketing and consulting and getting my MBA. I have thrown myself, since then, into building our company Traveling Spoon, a company that I love and believe in tremendously.
We connect travelers with authentic food experiences, in people’s homes around the world. I started the company because, after a travel experience to China where I felt like a tourist and didn’t connect with the culture or food at all, I wanted to find a way to make it easier to connect with locals and share home-cooked food, stories, and more. We started the company with experiences in India, Thailand, and Vietnam, and have expanded to over 16 countries with 150 hosts throughout Asia. We’ll be expanding soon to other parts of the globe.
Back to the morning. I get dressed and walk Craig to his bus with Albus. It is our little morning ritual and I love it. On days when Craig takes an early bus, I feel a little cheated! I live in the inner Mission in San Francisco near too many delicious coffee options and end my walk at a coffee shop to pick up a coffee, the only one I can have in the day – any more, and I feel like I am having a heart attack. But I sure love that one cup.
My morning walk to get coffee and walk Craig is like my mental commute, because I work from home in an office that is feet from where I sleep, separated by pocket french doors. The walk is my separation.
I typically get home by 8:00 am and start working right away. Coffee was breakfast. Some days, I Facetime with my sister and nephew, which is always a highlight of my week. I am from the east coast and, while Craig and I deeply love the Bay Area – the wild coasts of northern California, the fresh food, the beautiful hikes steps from our doorstep…I could go on! — I miss my family. My ten-month old nephew Milo is especially hard to be away from, and I am indebted to Google Hangouts and Facetime for letting us see each other so many thousands of miles away.
Then to work. We’ve turned the front room of my house into our office where four or sometimes five of us now work on a daily basis. I have a 9:00 am daily meeting with our Chief Technology Officer who leads all the engineering and product development for Traveling Spoon. We are about to launch a new website in a few weeks and we check on the latest bugs we have uncovered, our launch timeline, what she is working on that day, and anything else that might arise.
There are a million things I love about working on a startup. I love that we get to dream something and then execute our dreams. I love the feeling of thinking of something, then drawing it on paper, then mocking it up in Photoshop, then collaborating with our CTO to write the code, and then seeing it live and getting to show it to customers.
I love getting to work with our hosts, hundreds of people in dozens of cities across the world, who all deeply love getting to share their family recipes, culture, and stories with travelers who might live thousands of miles away. I love being responsible for building a team culture, and I really enjoy working with people who are equally passionate about this crazy idea of making travel more meaningful.
One of my favorite memories since starting Traveling Spoon is riding in a bus through the winding hills outside Kyoto, Japan to visit one of our hosts, a young couple who moved away from the hustle of Tokyo to be closer to nature. I loved how much that reminded me of stories of home, how familiar it could feel to put myself in their shoes of moving for a simpler life, and yet how completely foreign and new.
We ate in their home, an old farmhouse, and went for a quiet walk in the woods to a waterfall (and a secret samurai training ground!), and foraged for wild vegetables on the walk back. It is one of my favorite memories.
Another, because I can’t pick favorites in this job, was one of the first hosts I ever met on a trip to Thailand. I met Nid in the old quarter of downtown Chiang Mai, and we drove an hour outside of the city to a rural area called Lamphun, where I spent the day cooking with her mother in their open air kitchen in the home where Nid grew up.
We drove on a highway, through towns that are on no tourist map, where you see people waiting for the bus and going to the grocery store and walking to work. It would be like visiting Walnut Creek, perhaps, outside San Francisco, or Newton outside Boston. There is something so special in the ordinariness of it.
One of my favorite parts of travel is when all the differences boil down to the sameness of humans living their lives. My other favorite part: the food. The food! I thought I knew and liked Thai food, but we cooked and ate dishes I had never heard of in my life: minced catfish (laap pla duuk) and wing bean salad. Nid is a host who wanted to join our community to share the dishes and flavors that she grew up with, and those flavors were extraordinary. I’ll remember those bites of food forever, sweet and savory and pungent and NEW and truly mouth-watering.
One of the things I love most — and one of the things that causes me the greatest angst — is how many different things I might get to work on in one day. When people ask what I do, what it means to work at a startup, I think the best thing to do is to describe the different kinds of activities I might work on in an given day. It might be going through our new website and doing quality checks to see if there are any errors or bugs, which then I write up in our bug tracking software to send to our developers; working with our CTO to onboard and train a new remote developer we have just hired; writing and sending out a newsletter to our customers about our newest hosts; mocking up a fresh website feature in Photoshop; meeting with an aspiring entrepreneur to help them with their product or fundraising; checking in on our reservations and performing customer service for our upcoming travelers; meeting with our lawyers to discuss the new terms of service that we will need to launch with the new website; meeting with my co-founder to discuss a new exciting pilot program we are launching in 2016…The list goes on!
We’ll stop for lunch sometime in the middle of the day, around 1:00, and get something from a nearby spot, eat leftovers, or on the best days cook together. We’ll eat together as a team in the kitchen or in the backyard, which is a wonderful part of the day. Part of what brought Aashi and I together, was a belief in the power of food and eating to connect, and so I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us that without much conscious effort it has become a central part of our office and our culture.
We love cooking our host’s recipes, Korean ssam bulgogi (marinated sliced pork eaten with lettuce wraps) or Thai kai kaphrao (minced chicken stir-fried with basil), and enjoying it together at the table.
We go back to work with full bellies, me to meetings, or returning emails, or working on our new product launch, or writing a guest blog post for a favorite Bay Area blogger! Sometimes the hours are slow and I find myself distracted easily by piles on my desk, or an upcoming baby shower I have agreed to plan, but more often than not the hours go by quickly, and it is five or six or seven and I am wondering where the day went and how I could not have achieved more! I end most days wishing there were more hours in the clock.
I typically stop working around 7:30 pm, or earlier if I am going for a run or to do yoga as I am this evening. I fall in patterns of working out more or less but I have been running and going to classes more because I found they have been bringing me such joy. Maybe it is just a chance to get out of the house – which I really don’t have many of, working steps from my bed — which I relish, or those first moments after a workout when I feel strong, and capable, and energized. I try to remember those moments enough to stay motivated to go again.
I am not one of those people who easily wakes up at 5:00 or 6:00 am wanting to work out. I am a procrastinator through and through, often very unmotivated to work out. But I also know that I love it once I am there and especially once I am done. So I schedule classes and running dates around the neighborhood, and try to hold on to that little piece of sanity and not procrastinate it away.
After working out, or working late, I’ll start dinner. While I love cooking and food is one of my greatest joys, weekday cooking has become more of a puzzle. On my best days, I will have found time in the day to run to our nearby store or our local Thursday farmer’s market to pick up ingredients for something that has inspired me. Maybe something from this month’s Bon Appetit, or one of our host’s recipes.
The recent favorite from this week was a simple salad with arugula, avocado and fresh beefsteak tomato slices, with a homemade green goddess dressing, and thinly sliced skirt steak that I pan-fried. Somehow it came together in a delightful moment of serendipity and tasted juicy and fresh and was the perfect summer meal. Other days it is frozen dumplings and rice, or Trader Joe’s frozen flatbreads – those things are amazing – and a salad. But we always eat together. We’re a small family, for now, just me and Craig and Albus, but family dinners were one of the highlights of my childhood and something Craig and I love making happen every night, even though it typically means eating at 8:30 or 9 most nights.
After dinner we play a game (Hanabi is a current favorite), or read, or watch a show — most commonly nature or space documentaries, which never cease to amaze me and bring me joy. Busy weeks I’ll work after dinner or while Craig is cleaning up, but in general I function best in the mornings and am useless at night, which is evidenced by the fact that most nights I fall asleep on the couch next to Craig, wrapped in my favorite blanket, Albus draped sleeping awkwardly on top of me.
Someone propositioned us if we wanted to buy their company today. Ha! Most days I feel impressed with myself if I put on pants and a semi-decent pair of shoes and remember to walk my dog. Bonus points if I’ve imparted some knowledge to our employees or designed something new for our website. But most days I feel like I’m just holding on, trying to make it through, faking it through most parts. To buy a company! Well…it was a first. Perhaps one day. But for now I’ll just be happy I remembered the pants.
My biggest challenges, in a day, are filtering through the to-do list and prioritizing what needs to get done, and dealing with the mental anxiety that I am always failing. Despite our successes, of which there have been many that I am proud, the most pressing thing I ever feel is that I am falling short.
There are so many things that I am not good at and can’t be good at, because these are the first times I am ever doing them. Running a startup is a humbling experience, because every day there are so many things that are new that I have never done before, and that I am not doing well enough.
We don’t have enough reservations or haven’t made a customer happy enough or we have too many bugs on our new website or not enough features! There are any number of things on my list that I have failed at or haven’t done quite well enough, and it can be overwhelming.
And yet, the same thing that can cause me panic can bring me such great joy. Because I believe, fundamentally, in what we are building. I love what we are building, and I think it will make the world a better place.
A smaller place that connects humans in a worthwhile way. And that knowledge makes the journey and the forever-striving worth it.
Stephanie, the idea of turning a trip into a cultural connection is brilliant and so worthwhile! You should feel pride and joy. I look forward to sharing in one of these experiences someday.
What does everyone think of this concept? Would you be hesitant to eat in a stranger’s home, or would that thrill you to bits? I’d love to hear your most adventurous foodie experience, so please inspire the rest of us!