January 08, 2018
Iva Gruden, who runs Ljubljananjam Food Tours, is enthusiastic about her work and the city. Before I even start recording she’s telling me all about place we’re meeting, Magda, and its history via the now-shuttered Bi Ko Fe, praising the way they opened quietly, slowly adding food, the links with Luda and EK, dropping names I don’t yet know as I fumble with the MP3 player and try not to be intimidated by the fact that, in addition to running a successful food tour business, she also trained as a journalist and knows my job better than me.
How did this get started?
Looking back, I was always interested in food. I’d be baking and stuff as a kid, and my family shared this interest, cooking at home, discovering new restaurants, and being what today you’d call foodies.
So the first Ljubljananjam tour was in 2013, but in my mind it started earlier. I was playing with the idea of doing something like this in 2011, but then things happened. I moved to Canada for another year in 2012, and that was a year I really had time to figure out what I wanted to do when I came back. I could do journalism, but I also wanted to do something on my own. Then I came back and opened in the middle of the season, which shows how little I knew about tourism back then.
Iva Gruden, second right, in the covered market
There’s a lot of good writing on the site – did that drive things at first?
I started blog in 2007 when I went to Asia for the first time, but back then nobody thought they could be profitable, not like today, when you can run a business from one, which is great. I started writing because I’d always liked it, like keeping a journal when I was a teenager. I like documenting things, and that’s why I started that travel blog. And because I have this journalistic background I thought: well, I’ll do this and this and this, I’ll be superwoman, blogging, food tours, the lot. But then the business got going, and I did some other work, so the blog isn’t as developed as I wanted it to be because I didn’t have time.
The season for me is between March and late Oct, beginning of November, and then December, and 2015 was the year that ran me over, when Ljubljananjam finally became a full-time job after two years. But I understood that when you start a business you need to be realistic. It’s not going to fly right away, unless you make a Talking Tom and get rich overnight. That’s what made it feel so good when I could make a living doing this.
But back to journalism and food, and how this all began. I started writing for Odprta kuhinja [Delo’s then Sunday’s, now Saturday’s supplement NeDelo on food and gastronomy lifestyle] back in 2007, and I was lucky to have such a job at the time at NeDelo which I really loved. But I was a freelancer, and the more you work the more you get paid, so I was always digging out new places and festivals, getting interviews with chefs, or when I was traveling I’d do a piece on Korean cuisine, Taiwanese cuisine, Portuguese cuisine, whatever. And I don’t have any allergies or eating restrictions, and was always making lots of local connections when I was travelling. Like with Couchsurfing, “ok, where are we going to eat?” Slightly obsessed.
Who are the main customers?
Slovenians are sadly almost non-existent - I’d love to have more local people on my foodie tours. There are some, but the main market is English-speaking people, so the whole Commonwealth and the US, although not so much New Zealand and South Africa. I do the tours in English, unless people ask for another language, and with my guides I can do German and Spanish, but of course there are a lot of English-speaking people in other countries. The ones I’m missing are the ones where English is not so widely spoken, the French-world, the Spanish-world, Italians and all of Asia. Some countries are just not into the idea of a food tour. Ljubljana gets tons of Italians, but they’re just not interested - or perhaps I don’t know how to attract them.
Have you always lived in Ljubljana?
I lived in Vancouver twice, two and a half years in total. I went first as an English summer school student, then a foreign exchange student, a few times in between (for a visit, the Olympic games), then I did another year on a working visa, and I went back for two weeks again last March. It’s an insanely foodie city, but also insanely expensive. Ljubljana is getting that way too, with the rents for apartments, and it’d be nice if that was reflected in our salaries, but it’s home. In fact, I’ve always lived in the same neighbourhood here, Vič, which is bizarre when I think of all the places I’ve been. Still, I like the city a lot, the proximity of everything. It depends what you like, but bigger isn’t always better. You get older, you get attached to people, and that’s what important. Plus the food, of course. I mean, I was making potica at home before I came here to meet you. I’m doing an experiment with sour dough, and we’ll see how it goes.
Who leads the tours?
It used to be just me, but then it got too much. So I contracted someone, Alenka, who’s fantastic, and she got a lot of business herself, so I needed alternatives. Now I have a few people working for me, all women, and they’re all fantastic, of course, or they wouldn’t be working for me.
What kind of tours are most popular?
I can offer almost any kind of food and drink tour, so it’s not just a few staples. They can focus on craft beer, coffee, any of the elements that constitute Slovenian cuisine, and it’s not a museum version of our food, it’s what happens now. I guess the main tour is the so-called Ljubljana Essentials, the basic foodies tour, which is a tour around the city with enough stops to make you feel full. The second, and very close in popularity, is the craft beer tour, because I really like the development of the scene here. I started this in 2013, and people thought I was crazy, that it would just be Laško and Union, but all the small brewers started at that time, Bevog, Pelicon, Human Fish…
How about the sizes of the groups?
As a general rule I have a cap on six people for the walk-in tours, so we can all sit at one table, although sometimes there are exceptions, if everyone is OK with it. For example, we had seven people on a tour this week, two couples and two parents and their daughter.
Of course, if it’s a closed group then things can be arranged. So maybe I get the call saying we’re 15 people from Denmark, or we’re students of hospitality and there’s 30 of us. I sometimes work with a company that does MICE [meetings, incentives conferences and exhibitions], and handle foodie tours for them. Last October I had 100 people on bikes, and that was interesting. They were divided into seven groups and it all went well, but we were working on it for half a year.
With regard to custom tours, the whole thing really depends on what someone wants and what their budget is. There’s a lot of options with regard to food, music, and transportation, so we can really put together something unique, if you know what you’re looking for.
What about people with food allergies?
Well, that can complicate things, but we make it work. For example, in today’s group there’s going to be someone who’s allergic to fish, and we have one place on the tour that only serves wine and fish. So now we have to scrub that, because I don’t want anyone to think we disregarded that person’s preferences. But then people are gluten free, lactose free, and then there are some allergies, like to buckwheat, and we eat a lot of that in Slovenia, and then saffron, garlic, onion… Still, we take into consideration every single person. That’s why I say the tours are all customized, because we try and make them good for everyone. The only things I have a problem with are gluten free – if you’ve got celiac disease then these tours are not for you, because none of my partners is 100% gluten free. But then if you decide to go, it’s your responsibility. The big problem is vegan, and especially in winter, when our food has a lot of dairy. But vegetarian is the easiest thing to do.
How does a general tour go?
I structure it so we start with a soup, then some cheese and meats, charcuterie, main meat / fish / veggie dishes, wine, craft beer, with each thing in a different location, and I try and make sure there’s enough things for people to feel full, and then we finish with dessert and coffee. Ninety percent of my job is logistics, and we usually walk from one place to another, and I try not to overdo any of the elements, as there’s a lot to Slovenian food.
I’d say the whole thing is like a five-course menu, but you walk between the courses, and I like to keep it between 3.5 to 4 hrs. I do the times based on my partner restaurants, so the tours start at 11.30, 13:00 to 16:30. People can start later, but then that’s arranged like a private tour, as we can’t go to the places we usually do.
What about the competition?
Well, there are some other tours, and I think competition is good, as long as it’s healthy. The funny thing is we all appeared about the same time, 2013, and there haven’t really been any new ones since. It’s a difficult business, and not for everyone, but I love it.
To find out more about Iva’s food tours, and to read her views on the city’s food scene, check out Ljubljananjam’s website.