On a Tuesday evening in late September, Lindsay Marks stands in the center of a group of people at Spike Africa’s Fresh Fish Grill and Bar on Broadway.
She wears a cheek-stretcher of a smile as she welcomes her 40 guests to the first stop of their downtown food tour. The social-media savvy in the group snap pictures of her and of the pile of raw oysters on the buffet table behind her.
“And I’d like to thank my photographer,” she concludes, pointing to a man with a camera. Then, in a flash of childlike excitement, she adds, “That sounds so cool. ‘My photographer.’”
About a year ago, Marks sat in front of an Excel spreadsheet at her corporate job and thought, This is not me anymore. She was about to turn 30 and could no longer stomach the idea of being one of “those people” who have zero love for what they do for a living. And so, on a whim, she went on LinkedIn and typed “foodie” into the search bar. She didn’t expect any results but a hit for a “Dishcrawl Ambassador” popped up.
Dishcrawl began in San Jose in 2010 and has since been represented in 125 cities around the country. They currently have nine full-time ambassadors and 45 part-time. During a standard Dishcrawl event, an ambassador leads a group of people through four restaurant visits in one neighborhood, all within walking distance of each other. The restaurants provide small bites, sometimes buffet-style, sometimes sit-down. Each stop lasts 45 minutes to an hour. Dishcrawl provides the name, the website, and stickers that read “Dishcrawl approved” for restaurants to place in their windows if they choose. The company also provides a “five-week training program” via Skype. “Your first event, basically, is like a trial run,” Marks says.
Once she passed the initial interview, she coordinated her first event in North Park, the neighborhood in which she lives. It was an easy place to start, since she was familiar with the restaurants, knew some of the staff and owners, and had no problem creating a walk itinerary between them. For that first event, she limited the number of tickets to 30. It sold out.
In June 2013, on her own now, save for the optional weekly conference call, she hosted another event in Little Italy. And though she bumped up the tickets to 45, it sold out. In August, she did South Park. Now, in September, it’s downtown, and in early November she did another in the East Village. “I’m trying to do an event every four to six weeks,” she says.
In the meantime, Marks has hung on to her full-time day job at CareFusion, a company that manufactures medical devices. Although Dishcrawl is her love job, the one that makes her corporate work “more tolerable,” the pay is a far cry from the $60,000 she makes arranging logistics and transportation for CareFusion.
The way the money works with Dishcrawl is that “crawlers” pay $45 for each ticket, and 50 percent of ticket sales go to Dishcrawl. Marks gets the rest, but must subtract whatever comps she’s given to bloggers or other members of the media from her cut. In other words, if she sells all 45 tickets, the maximum she can make is $1012.50, and that’s only if she doesn’t offer any discounts or comp tickets. But for each event she offers four or five media passes because the bloggers help with promotion through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.
“So, my first event,” she chuckles, “my first ticket sells, and I get excited. So I go look, and it’s [my boyfriend]. [And] he Googled a discount code. And I call him, and I’m, like, ‘That’s my money.’ It was funny.”
For each restaurant, Marks has a “small budget.” Although she will not share the exact amount she offers, she does say it’s in the low single digits per “crawler,” and it includes tip and tax. The number scares some restaurant owners away, but Marks says her sales pitch is heavy with the perks of exposure, repeat business, and alcohol sales (100 percent of which go to the restaurant).
Tonight, after the oysters and ceviche and house-made potato chips are long gone, Marks dings on a water class with a spoon and announces that it’s time for folks to pay their bar tabs. Ten minutes later, she leads the group out the door and in a big, loud voice, says, “We’re off to see the wizard!”
The next stop is a few blocks away at Magnolia Tap and Kitchen, where the group crowds in on tall stools around long bar tables. At one table, while awaiting their beer and their jalapeño corn bread, the guests share stories about how they found out about Dishcrawl. A Broadway aficionado named Leticia met Marks at the gym. Blogger Jen Boyd (“Secrets in San Diego”) landed on Marks’s radar prior to the North Park event and has attended and helped promote three of her four Dishcrawl events. James Holtslag and Trey Nichols met Marks in August at Alchemy during a foodie event promoting their new business venture, Heart and Trotter Butchery. One woman knows Marks because they dance together in a cabaret group. (Yes, Marks dances. She also sews. “I cannot be bored,” she says, “or I’m screwed.”) Another couple of guys didn’t know anything about Marks or Dishcrawl before but are down from L.A. for a conference and found the event while looking for something to do in San Diego for the evening.
And then there is the attractive middle-aged couple who Marks introduces to me as Lisa and Dan. They gush about how amazing the event is. I grow suspicious until I realize these are her parents.
“They come to all my events,” Marks says.
A week or so after the event, when I call to confirm that Lisa and Dan’s last names are also Marks, she tells me no, that their last name is McGuckin and that Dan is not her biological father.