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Sacramento tour company pairs history with food

Did you know that Sutter Middle School was built atop a former cemetery, and room 302 gives people the heebie jeebies? Or that a prostitute killed in the building that houses Biba restaurant on Capitol Avenue supposedly haunts its halls?

Maybe you weren’t aware that Paragary Bakery produces 2,000 pieces of bread daily for all its restaurants, from a discrete building next to Ink Eats and Drinks. Or that Coffee Works roasts 600 pounds per week, and that light roasts contain more caffeine than its dark counterparts.

If this local trivia wasn’t part of your general Sacramento knowledge, consider yourself in good company. And if you want to attain a deeper understanding of Sacramento’s history, while sampling tasty treats and touring restaurants that make up the city’s booming food scene, a local food touring company may be a step in that direction.

A simple plate of carnitas, along with rice and beans at Centro.

Local Roots Food Tours, which just celebrated its two-year anniversary, prides itself in offering "gastronomic and historical walking adventures" through some of the city’s most historic neighborhoods. It’s recently added a tour highlighting "The Kay," Sacramento’s original main street, and is the only Sacramento tour company that caters to both foodies and historians. Surprisingly, the tours attract more locals than tourists.

"I didn’t want my tour to be a ‘tourist’ attraction, but something even locals would enjoy tremendously and walk away learning something about their own community and its cuisine," said Local Roots Food Tour Founder Lisa Armstrong. "To my pleasant surprise our ticket sales have been approximately 80 percent locals within a 25-mile radius and then a lot of out-of-towners who still reside in California, and then about 5 to 6 percent tourists from other states."

Leo Heredia of Centro talking recipes, food and history on a recent tour.

Armstrong, who has more than 14 years’ experience as a private chef and caterer, loves educating others on the benefits of using local ingredients. While on a business trip to Seattle about three years ago, she stumbled upon a gourmet walking food tour and wanted to go on one in Sacramento upon returning. But as one didn’t exist, Armstrong decided to direct her passion for food and history into creating a walking food tour that ties into the local agriculture scene by focusing on businesses that work with local farmers and artisans.

She’s now established three Sacramento tours, and even one in Murphys. On a recent "Origins of Sacramento" tour, this reporter walked 2.5 miles and visited three restaurants, one bakery, one ice cream shop and one coffee shop. And sure enough, everyone else on the tour lived in Sacramento, and wanted to learn more about their backyards.

"You drive through Sacramento all the time," said Odette Ebersole, who dragged her husband along for the tour. "We thought it would be fun to learn about history and food origins."

Tours are typically 3-and-a-half hours long, but can run longer, and participants can expect "special plated foods from some unique and hidden gem food stops, learn about the area the tour route leads them with historical, cultural and architectural tidbits given by our trained guides," Armstrong said. "They will explore areas that they have either never been or never thought about going – could even be a street they pass by on a daily basis but never went down and the tour will take them there, and finally they will hopefully feel a connection to Sacramento, whether it be with the food they eat, the chef they meet, the story they heard of the scenery they witness – they will walk away full and happy and content."

Tour Guide Joelle Robertson led the group through Midtown’s Sutter District, and eventually into East Sacramento’s Fabulous 40s. At Cafe Bernardo, Chef Shannon Berg talked about the restaurant’s history, the behind-the-scenes challenges and what it’s like to work in a male-dominated field.

"It’s very hard to break into this field as a woman," said Berg, who has been with the Paragary Restaurant Group 18 years. "We make these things with a conscience and I feel really good about what you’re eating."

Local Roots Food Tour guide Joelle Robertson telling tales of Sacramento’s not-so-distant past.

At Centro, Chef Leo Heredia spoke about the regional Mexican restaurant’s carnitas, which have been made by the same women for the past 15 years. "We know where our foods come from and the recipes are straight from Mexico," he said.

At Coffee Works, barista John Shahabian said coffee is following the trend of craft beer, as people are becoming interested in its origins. "As people’s pallets are more trained, they will go toward lighter roasts and a more local business," he said.

When asked how CoffeeWorks remains in business with the competition from other Sacramento roasting facilities and shops, Shahabian, who is also the son of the owner, said it’s actually not that competitive. "It’s very free and open, the climate is such that they’re open to share," he said. "I haven’t seen one of us go out of business."

The Gourmet on K tour launched in early March, and was envisioned two years ago while Armstrong was creating the first food tour – City of Trees Food and Cultural Tour. The original tour goes through two historic neighborhoods where participants learn about the wealthy merchants who made a living selling to the miners and residents of the city.

John Shahabian of Coffee Works shows and explains the intricacies of roasting.

"I wanted to create a tour that actually went by these merchants’ old storefronts and learn the history of how Sacramento was a hub for retail and how popular Sacramento’s original main street was and is currently being revitalized to become again," Armstrong said. "Participants will learn about this fascinating street and why some big name restauranteurs put their faith into establishing their restaurant down K Street."

Speaking of history, that aspect of the tour is just as plentiful and savory as the food. Armstrong did her research done months prior to launching, by visiting the Sacramento Room where pamphlets and articles shed light on often-sugar coated pieces of local history. She and her staff also talk to the locals who grew up here to get those unique stories that haven’t been captured, yet.

"It won’t be stories in the Foder’s hide or another tourist book," Armstrong said. "We want the stories to help our participants connect to Sacramento so they walk away feeling intrigued to learn more or are impressed that this city has gone through much turmoil and success and they are a part of something amazing of what lies ahead."

Tours are held throughout the week, but days and times vary depending on the specific tour. Check out the Local Roots Food Tours website for more information. 

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