By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Inspired by her family’s restaurant business, Angela Shen always felt that food had the power to bring people together.
Having never visited Seattle before she moved here from the midwest in 2007, Shen was surprised by the incredible diversity and richness of the local food scene.
She had the idea to start a food company that takes people into different restaurants and eateries to allow them to experience and learn about good food.
Shen’s parents were from an era when having good food was enough to bring people through their doors. Though that’s not the case anymore, she was just excited to bring hardworking people’s stories to life, and everyone wants to connect with makers behind closed doors, so that’s how she started her business in May 2007, Savor Seattle.
Their very first tour, which is the signature two-hour tour of Pike Place Market, was what they launched with. As they grew, the company added gourmet restaurant tours, chocolate indulgence tours, booze and bites tours, and also a three-day, two-night kayaking expedition in the San Juan Islands. The company grew organically and Shen led the one-woman show, leading tours to a team of over 30 individuals for 15 years.
During the peak of COVID in March 2020, Shen’s business came to a halt.
“Travel and restaurants shut down and our entire business went away overnight, so we quickly pivoted and transitioned into a different model. We moved into doing curated food boxes for local delivery and nationwide shipping,” she said.
“With food tours, we were always ambassadors for Seattle’s restaurants. Instead of bringing people to these restaurants, we’ll try reversing the flow and bring food to people’s doorsteps. It was an entirely different business model and a crazy adventure during COVID, but it was wildly successful. We were so fortunate because Seattleites are very passionate about social justice and the local business community,” she explained.
“Our message was to help save Seattle’s small businesses and it was tremendous. We wrapped up the COVID year having grown the company two times bigger than our best tourism year, and we contributed over $2 million in direct sales to over 120 food businesses in the greater Seattle area. We also donated over $100,000 to a number of local nonprofits,” Shen said.
Savor Seattle committed to donating a minimum of $5 for every box sold to benefit a relevant nonprofit. Boxes ranged from $59.99 up to $149.99.
When they launched their solidarity box, featuring 11 Black-owned food makers in Washington for the first time, they donated all proceeds from the first 200 boxes and $5 of every subsequent box sold to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) fund. They also relaunched that box with different vendors and donated a total of $14,000 to BLM.
For example, they partnered with local chef Eduardo Jordan, Boon Bonna Coffee, Miss Marjorie, Bite Me cookies, Junebug, Atomic Corn, etc.
In addition, they featured women-owned makers’ boxes when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed, and boxes for Hispanic Heritage Month, as well as Asian American Pacific Islander Month.
“It helped figure out our place and how we could help in a very difficult year. It felt very authentic to our mission—to serve joy—and we were still doing that especially in dark times.
People were excited. We’d get a lot of calls and emails telling us that our weekly deliveries were the thing they looked forward to. That’s how we knew it was a Monday because that’s when the Savor Seattle boxes arrived, and there was a different assortment every week. It felt good to be a part of something that was so positive for people,” she said.
Towards the end of 2020, they transitioned their box operations to another local company, Homegrown. Homegrown does a lot of the wholesale delivery work and when Shen started the home delivery business, Savor Seattle transitioned all box operations over to Homegrown.
The majority of Shen’s team has now transitioned to Homegrown, while Shen retained the tour side of the business. She ended up working a deal with one of her industry colleagues to operate the tour products and Savor Seattle still runs an annual gourmet kayaking expedition tour business.
“It was our way to support our community—fighting for the small businesses we love. It took a lot and it wasn’t what we were known for nor our expertise, but we made it happen,” she added.
Shen found out about the Comast RISE grant opportunity through the Intentionalist on social media. With the grant, Shen is in the process of creating a brand new culinary hands-on experience that she’s excited to launch later this year. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but the grant has allowed her to invest in research and development and involves actually making food which is totally new for her.
The biggest takeaway from COVID for Shen was learning to lean into the community. When they wanted to pivot the business, they had no idea how to do it, but she just started calling people and they leaned in to help. Someone from Tacoma made Savor Seattle-branded pink masks for staff to wear so they could be safe while making deliveries. When the team ran out of paper bags for deliveries, people started bringing their paper bags from home—the community really showed up.
“For me, leaning in and staying true to your values is what drives me every day. I realized that it’s about helping the little guy and making a difference,” Shen said.
To support the #VeryAsian movement initiated by Korean American journalist Michelle Li, Shen recently launched DOMO Collective, a new online marketplace for foodie jewelry by Asian makers with proceeds benefiting the Very Asian Foundation.
Shen’s newest venture aims to uplift, heal, and empower AAPIs around the world while also bringing people of all cultures together to collectively champion inclusiveness.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.