From tourist to food tour boss

Whether it’s offering durians or ‘chopeing’ seats in hawker centres, Wok ‘n’ Stroll’s founder and CEO Karni Tomer, a finalist in Best Customer Service for Tourist Guiding in Singapore Tourism Awards 2018, tells Pamela Chow how she leaves a lasting impression on clients

Tomer (centre) always offers durians to clients to end their Singapore food tour experience on a memorable note

What brought you to Singapore to conduct culinary tours?
I was a chef in Israel before coming to Singapore eight years ago to join my husband who was here for work. I’m a foodie and my passion is local markets and food, so when a Malay friend here took me to Tekka Market, I fell in love.

I remember having chicken biryani (spicy rice), served on a banana leaf with egg, mutton and cashew, and it was amazing. After three days of eating like this, my heart was in Singapore.

I wanted to share my passion with other visitors. Back (in 2010), there was no TripAdvisor, and I found it hard to find the local wet markets. When I started Wok ‘n’ Stroll, my company was one of the few players offering culinary tours.

What preparation did you have to do?
After my visit to Tekka Market, I bought books from Dr Leslie Tay (a prominent food blogger with a taste for hawker fare) and Makansutra (a local food guide and standard). I read blogs of people who miss Singapore food, like their grandmother’s popiah (vegetable wrap). I read up on every dish that I ate.

I wanted to share all of these by taking people out of the air-conditioned malls and off the beaten track. It took about two to three years to be licensed as a travel agent and create our first tours.

How do you ensure customers receive the best experience from your tours?
Manpower and guides are important. Our customers deserve to receive the best knowledge and service. Our guides are all professional – they know how to work with clients, be attentive, on time, tidy and give the best customer service.

But they also know how to be a passionate food explorer. They all have a background in food – from a blogger to a guy whose wife sells noodles in a canteen – so they can tell you about everything from the culture to the ingredients.

I tell my guides to take me as a tourist and be able to entertain me. I have to learn something interesting and surprising.

As guides, we are the ambassadors of Singapore for the three hours of our tour. Some clients have certain expectations about the tour and food, which can sound romantic to them, but sometimes they don’t like what they’re tasting.

For example, some customers find the belacan (chilli) too spicy and they want a beer, so I always tell our guides to just give them what they ask for. Let them enjoy it and go home happy.

I don’t just show my customers to a trendy restaurant – I take them to tour the establishment. We try to do unique experiences that revolve around food.

And we always give our customers durian at the end of the tour! Even if they don’t like it, they will still remember the good experience of Singapore.

As a non-Singaporean, how do you connect with the locals? What are the challenges and how do you overcome them?
As a former chef, I know the hawkers’ frustrations and appreciate the work that they do. We try to keep a close relationship with the hawkers. Some of them are our friends – we give them Chinese New Year or Deepavali presents, and they greet us during the New Year. We engage them in activities as our partners, and we’re even friends on Facebook.

One of our challenges was learning how to chope (reserve) hawker centre seats for big groups of 40. We have a food producer go to the market earlier to set up placemats and cutlery on the tables.

What is the next step for Wok ‘n’ Stroll?
We are working on technological developments that will take Wok ‘n’ Stroll to the next stage. I keep in touch with our clients to see what they’re looking for and what the next trend is, e.g. we are exploring a “catch of the day” tour to the fishery ports.We are also looking into developing tours tailored for the Chinese market, which is starting to visit the local hawker centres.

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