Imagine becoming an ‘honorary local’ on a trip to an undiscovered venue in a country you have never experienced. On your trip, you dine at top-rated eateries alongside locals, your hotel is hand-picked to reflect the character of each destination you visit, and you don’t even have to worry about your luggage. This was the vision of Annie Cheng who was inspired to start The Table Less Traveled to create personalized group travel experiences that would connect people to local culture, experiences, and cuisines that travelers may not have found otherwise.
Bringing a Business to Life
Annie grew up traveling with her family to countries around the world, developing connections with people in the communities they visited along the way. The people Annie met and the unfamiliar flavors she experienced on her international travel expeditions resonated with her long after her journeys ended.
After saving enough money to buy a house at the age of 24, Annie decided to invest her money in travel instead, living with different families over six months. It was during this time that Annie’s aunt and uncle recognized her entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged her to start her own business.
“The idea was born at that restaurant table. I realized that so many people travel, but they miss the insight of meeting people who know the country. Friends would open their homes and they were so welcoming and hospitable. It gives the traveler an insider pass,” Annie says.
Annie started The Table Less Traveled in 2014 while working as a beer cart girl at the Newscastle Golf Course, learning how to build a successful business along the way. The following year, Annie led her first trip to Malaysia and Singapore. Annie’s father grew up in a small town on the island off the coast of Borneo and she was inspired to take travelers to experience the blending of cultures and the beautiful landscapes of an undiscovered destination. However, travelers wanted to experience something more familiar to them.
Partnering with a company in Seattle that ran food tours, Annie soon discovered that customers longed to visit Italy. Italy soon became an entry point for most of their clients. The pros at The Table Less Traveled began planning personalized expeditions for travelers that accounted for every detail from the time they arrived at the airport to the time they returned home.
“The travel experience is focused on learning about the local culture through food. Everything from a cooking class, visiting a small farm, seeing how Nonna makes cheese in the back kitchen, having dinner with a local family. We do everything from when they arrive in the country to when they depart,” Annie says.
The Table Less Traveled takes groups of no more than twelve people to experience countries including Italy, Peru, France, Portugal, and Japan alongside unfamiliar faces. The small tour groups allow travelers to explore private, undiscovered venues while dining and interacting with locals to form meaningful connections.
“Our mission is to unite people over shared experiences,” Annie says. “A true bonding experience happens with our groups. We have reunion dinners, people visit each other, they become so close through the experiences. Then they travel to other places with the same groups. The people who come on our trips enjoy other people, enjoy food, and want to meet new people.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early March halting international travel, the effects on The Table Less Traveled were devastating.
“It wiped out our business overnight. We had all these growth plans, we were selling out our trips, people were finding us online--it had taken a long time to get to that point of brand recognition. It felt like we were starting to get momentum after five years of blood, sweat, and tears, and it was wiped out overnight,” Annie says.
Annie knew that her team needed to do something different to make it out ahead. It was during this time of struggle that Annie realized that the company was uniquely positioned to continue connecting people through online cooking classes that would bring together chefs around the world and those ready to learn from the comfort of their homes.
“I would call the people we worked with and we ended up building this overseas cooking class program. Sometimes our chefs are up until 2:00 in the morning. We’ve expanded beyond the destinations where we physically go. We’re excited that it’s opening new doors for us,” Annie says.
Aspiring explorers can sign up online to experience a live interactive cooking class with chefs from around the world during this time of social distancing. Classes typically involve 3-15 people, with private classes available upon request. While we may not be able to travel the world, Annie and her team are bringing the world to us.
Transitioning Back to Travel
As times return to normal and travel resumes, Annie is excited to continue cultivating meaningful travel experiences with explorers abroad.
“We definitely want to get back to international travel. We want to make sure we’re safely doing that, allowing the necessary time and space for that to happen. I’m trying to be patient even though I’m not a patient person,” Annie says. “It’s opened us up to a new audience of people who care about food and culture but may not be able to afford that experience otherwise. We’re now looking at bite-sized excursions in the Pacific Northwest, so stay tuned!”
Annie’s Seattle Business Recommendations
“I’ve gone out to their farms and I know that they do a really great job with fresh seafood. I buy their products to take home and cook more than I go to eat at the restaurant.”
“I love their product. I use it all the time, especially for travel, because it’s nice to have a refresh when you’re going somewhere new.”
“These water bottles have a filter built-in. We provide these bottles in areas where the tap water is not clean.”
What are some of your favorite virtual cultural experiences? Share them with us on Fresh Chalk!