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Savoring the Small Business Journey With Angela Shen

Season 2: Episode 23


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Two years ago, Behind the Review featured Angela Shen and her longstanding food tour business, Savor Seattle. Since then, Angela sold Savor Seattle and started a new tour business, Savor the Wild Tours, this time focused on novel food experiences in the wild, such as oyster shucking and mushroom foraging. Hear from Angela on what inspired her decision to leave behind her successful first venture and start again from scratch.

On the Yelp Blog: Take a walk with Angela and learn how she built a new business that complemented her entrepreneurship style and personality.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line. Occasionally I talk to industry experts on topics like digital marketing, social media, and leveraging technology. Today I’m talking to a business owner, who was actually on the show in our first year of running and who has also become an expert on many things! I’ll link that original episode in the show notes if you want to check it out. But today, we’re talking about the sale of that business and the start of a new journey.

Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: I’m so excited to be here today with Angela Shen. Angela was actually on Behind the Review over two years ago now, talking about her business Savor Seattle, which is how we first met. I’m gonna have her tell you a little bit about herself and that business, but so much has happened since that last episode.

And today we’re really gonna talk more about your entrepreneurial journey, how that’s looked as you’ve transitioned into another business now, so I don’t need to give any more details away. Angela, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell everyone about your journey in entrepreneurship, starting with Savor Seattle, and bring us to today.

ANGELA: First of all, thanks Emily for having me on the show again. What a treat!  As you mentioned, I started my journey as an entrepreneur in Seattle by launching a food tour company called Savor Seattle. So that was 15 years ago actually now. 17. Oh my gosh. I’m really dating myself. and I was new to Seattle, Sight unseen, decided having grown up in a restaurant family and having a love for food and seeing Seattle as an outsider and appreciating it for all that it was, ah, gosh, I should start a food tour company here. And so I did!

And across 15 years it really grew that organically. I started as a one woman show. Leading tours myself of Pike Place Market, answering customer service phone calls from my car, and then ultimately growing it to be a team in peak season of 30 to 35 people. And so it was an incredible journey.

Then we come upon Covid, record screech, and we closed all tours indefinitely and our industry was hit very similar to hotels, airlines. We were hemorrhaging refunds. And the world came to an end. So, we pivoted, that was the magic word of 2020, to an entirely different business model.

We figured if we couldn’t bring people to the restaurants anymore and showcase what Seattle’s food scene was about, then we would instead bring the food to the people. So we created curated food boxes that were all local purveyors and every week within Pike Place we would come up with a new box assortment with fresh market flowers even. It was just bonkers. I can’t even tell you what it was like except for that it was like building a parachute while we were falling off the building. So an entirely new business. And in nine months, we were very fortunate to be a covid success story. We more than doubled our revenues in those nine months during Covid versus our best tour year prior.

And to boot, we also did a lot of good for our local community ’cause every single box that we sold, we donated a minimum of $5 to a local nonprofit. So that included the Black Lives Matter fund when we did an all black owned businesses box. We did an all women’s zone business box. So we donated over a $100,000 that year of COVID. So it was an incredible journey as an entrepreneur, and seeing just what our community was going through.

And I think that the message that we put out there at the time was if we really value these small businesses that truly Yelp is built on, if we want our community to continue to look like that post Covid and pandemic, then the time to support our small businesses was now, and to put our money where our mouth was to keep those small businesses operating a life support, they can make it to the other side. And so I’m really proud of that work that we did. We’re a small piece of a very big puzzle. But we survived and thrived and we’re very glad that we helped over 200 other small food businesses in Seattle to do the same.

EMILY: What I love so much about your entire evolution and journey is your business has always been about collaboration, about partnering with local businesses and different restaurants and places that you wanted to show your customers. And honestly, I believe that’s why you were able to pivot so successfully in the pandemic because you had these relationships and these people that trusted you on the consumer side and knew that you were working and finding incredible local people to support and almost giving them a way to do one thing and support many, but it’s also why you were able to find random places to pack those boxes. And just everything in the early days was happening because of years of foundation and relationship building you had done.

Can you just talk a little bit about that, because I think for many entrepreneurs that’s so integral to their success is being able to collaborate and partner and form those relationships.

ANGELA: Yeah. I really owe all of my wins, I would say, to reaching out to people in the community, and that’s a really hard thing for me to come to terms with as an entrepreneur that is an introvert. Believe it or not, nobody believes me when I tell them that I’m a massive introvert.

So it’s funny that I owe so much of what, where I am today and how I got here because of reaching out and sometimes I forget the frequency in which I did it. But I think I was really intentional, right? Seeking out the right pathways to get to where I needed to be. And frankly, sometimes you just don’t know when a conversation with someone completely out of context will translate into something that’s really meaningful.

So even, for example, the Sale of Savor Seattle happened to a local company, Homegrown, because I ended up going out to dinner with a girlfriend who happened to know somebody who was involved with a business sale to Homegrown. It’s very odd how things happen.

EMILY: How did you decide that it was time to do that, and what was that process and decision making like for you? Because, I think some people, that’s the ultimate goal. Like when I retire I’m gonna sell my business. But at your stage it was totally your choice to remove yourself. And a lot of entrepreneurs I think might see that as like folding the business or being done. And that’s quite the opposite from what you did for yourself.

ANGELA: Yeah. So backing up to Q4 of 2020, so right before we ultimately sold the company, I think it was an understanding of a couple of things. I’ve been leading Savor Seattle for 15 years. It was a very successful business and it was very much my identity – in entirety.

And I would’ve probably continued to putter along if it hadn’t been for Covid. Now, was I growing professionally? Was I super fulfilled and learning new things every day? No, but it was straightforward. I fought the hard fight to get to where I was, and I would’ve just probably kept going even though I kind of felt like it was time for something new.

So even pre Covid, I was already looking at ways to expand and branch out. So I was looking at taking on freelance business consulting roles to be able to give back, take what I’d learned, help others grow and scale. So covid happening, and then our massive business pivot was an opportunity for me to jump in and frankly prove to myself again that I was capable of still doing these massive changes and being in the trenches.

And I did it, but I was like, you know what, like the thought of rebuilding Savor Seattle and tours from scratch, starting over, I’m not built for that. 15 years of work to restart it all over again. That wasn’t for me, even though I knew that I could do it and we’d get back to where we were, and then the value of the company would be way more valuable in two years because I have to prove out that we weren’t just that covid was permanent. I just, I wasn’t built that way.

Now I’ll share a personal story. What really convinced me that I wanted to exit at the time that I wanted to exit was because I don’t want to wait for an external factor to make the decision for me. I didn’t wanna wait for someone else or something else to come in and take that choice away from me.

If I didn’t do it and I waited for something else to happen, I would regret that. So I can’t live with the price of regret and being able to exit at the time that I wanted to and take care of my team. So they all had jobs with homegrown, it made me feel really good. I picked the right place and the right people at the right time.

EMILY: For sure. And I think something you talked about with your identity being so intertwined in Savor Seattle and wanting a little bit of that separation, I think that’s something so many entrepreneurs can understand.

And I think sometimes it feels good when your business is everything that you want to be in non-human form. But there’s also this big risk in making your identity and your business’s identity the same. And I think in your journey of selling Savor Seattle and then rediscovering what you wanted to work on next, you have a unique experience of separating your identity from the business and then also being more conscious of how you define yourself going forward.

Can you just talk about that and what that felt like to you? And maybe the points when it was hard, but you knew you made the right decision and you were progressing to a place you wanted to be.

ANGELA: Oh, totally. The entire gamut and range of emotion is vast. The day that the transaction was official with a sale to homegrown, I felt like this huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but then I also massively ugly cried the same night like mourning of this incredible loss. Even though I was, yeah, relieved, right? So it, with my first child, it will always be.

And so being okay separating, like I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully okay. And I definitely watch from the sidelines and I’m like, oh, that’s not what I would do as a parent. Or oh gosh, is this child’s still gonna be okay? So I live with that. But I think the year and a half that followed after the sale, I was no longer owner of Savor Seattle but interestingly enough, in the public eye, people still associated me as one and the same.

In fact, I still held media interviews being the face of that business, even though I wasn’t the owner anymore. It was very hard. And not only detaching myself from the identity of the company versus who I am, but then trying to figure out, well what the heck am I gonna do now? This was supposed to be what I was gonna do, this was gonna be my legacy.

And ultimately for the first time in my life, I actually had time to be a real human and start to learn about myself. Then a lot more quality time with my significant other, my kids, myself, developing hobbies and interests. Like what the heck are those? Like when you’re an entrepreneur, like you don’t have time, right? A hobby is scrolling Facebook posts, before you fall asleep, like that’s a hobby.

So during that time, it really put the world into focus for me that at this stage of my life, I don’t want another career or job that is going to consume me in the way that Savor Seattle did. It was an incredible journey and ride, but that whiplash of easy come, easy go. Even though we were a success story from Covid, I just didn’t want that weight anymore. And I also wasn’t gonna put all of my eggs in one basket. So Savor Seattle and Covid taught me that. So in this new chapter, I knew diversification was going to be key for me, and be able to dabble in a couple different things, and then together I get to define what success looks like today, which is very different than what it was when I first started Savor Seattle

EMILY: We’re going to take a quick break.

EMILY: I remember a brief period of time where it was like, maybe I’m gonna find a job in corporate America, or maybe I’m gonna go work for someone else. And ultimately that wasn’t the right direction for you. But I know that feeling of like, dang, is that safer? Is that better?

And you got to the other side of it and found a happy medium between your first entrepreneurial journey and what you’re doing today. Can you just talk a little bit about that? Maybe what that period was like, what you discovered when you thought maybe that was the route you were gonna go? And then tell us where you’ve landed right now. What’s your current project? That’s so exciting to me and really not completely different, but has adjacent interests to Savor Seattle?

ANGELA: I’ve always said that I can’t live with a price of regret, and the only way to know definitively whether there’s something, it can work or not, is just try it. You can always go back. And so one of those decision points was, gosh, man, could I ever work for someone else again? Would I like it? I fully appreciate all the benefits of stability, health insurance that I’m not paying for, all of those things.

Could I work for someone else again? And so there’s only one way to find out. Well, I did, I took a full-time job working for a company for seven months and I actually really enjoyed it. Really, really enjoyed it. I love working with a team, working on big problems and really taking that  skillset and magnifying it.

I see that as a, I can always go back. So my true calling, I think, is to create my own path, whatever that looks like. So being an entrepreneur or helping other people to carve their path. My secret, my superpower is being a spark for others. So that meant starting my own thing again, which I really would never have written in my book that I would sell one tour company just to start another one, which is exactly what I am doing.

So I’ve launched another tour company. I know the naming of this is just going to knock your socks off, but it went real crazy with this one. Ready. Savor the Wild Tours. So we focus on wild food experiences that Washington State is famous for. So things like mushroom foraging, shellfish gathering, and pop-up dining experiences that show off Washington’s famous wild food.

I think what is so special and what landed me here was of course, yes, I finally had time to invest in hobbies and I always wanted to learn how to mushroom forage. At the beginning of Covid, I met some people who were into it and then that’s all it took, just moth to a flame. So it was off to the races and people got really into foraging during Covid too, and now it’s a real hip to be a forager. So I thought, Hey, could this be a business? Turns out it can.

And I love all of the things that I ended up falling in love with here in Washington for its food as an outsider. Oysters, clams, dungeness crab, salmon, peaches. It’s incredible. We live in a cool place. So as a visitor and as a local who lives here, there is nothing that gives you a sense of place better than being outside in the wild, finding your own food and then eating it. It just really scratches that like hunter-gatherer itch that’s inside every single one of us. So our tagline is Feed Your Wild side.

EMILY: I love it. The thing also that I love is, yes, some components are the same. If you wanna look at the two businesses on paper. They’re so different in almost every other way. I think of the core elements of Savor Seattle being the restaurants and the places that you take your customers to and the core of Savor The Wild is really more the experience and the seasonality

But it really is completely different in terms of operationally and things like that, because you’re taking people out into The environment and the world not to, here’s a restaurant, here’s a shop, here’s a butcher. So the thread is really helping people discover cool unique things, fueling people’s desire to try different foods. But otherwise it’s pretty different.

ANGELA: Yeah. So at this stage of my life, I am actually really excited to be hands-on in the business. I lead every one of these experiences myself. I create all of these product experiences. I scout every location myself before I take people there.

I see what I’m doing now as being an ambassador of Washington. Because this state is so flipping cool and special. Like the more I travel the world, the more I appreciate how lucky I am to live in Washington, to be close to mountains, water, Seattle, which is an urban city, like all in one place … that’s hard to find.

And so I love seeing people’s eyes just absolutely light up because they cannot believe that they’ve lived in Washington their entire lives and have never, ever shucked the their own oyster from a beach, or they’ve never been in a forest that is like emerald carpets of moss for as far as I can see. It’s the stuff that you read in fairytales and you’re like, this is here. And to come home with seven pounds of mushrooms that you found in two hours, right? Like I believe in creating experiences that are distinct, right? Like compact. You don’t waste time. That’s my job. I should be the one taking you to this place and creating an experience for you. Something that you don’t have to waste your time and your energy.

And so I’m approaching these experiences in a way that I don’t think have been done in this industry yet. So I’m excited to see where it goes. And I know it’s hard work. I’m doing double duty, triple duty. Basically I’m guaranteeing that if I take you somewhere, you’re gonna go home with a lot of good.

And if I don’t put in the hard work to deliver on that upfront, people are going to be disappointed and I don’t want that. I want people to walk away with that sparkly look in their eyes that they’ll never forget. And it’s the spark and the start of a lifetime ahead of them, of treasure hunts of their own with their friends and their family. And they’re just excited to get outside and feed their wild side.

EMILY: Yeah, I love that. And something that makes me think is, if we wanna talk more of the like tactical, I think when you started this new business, you went through that journey that business owners have all the time when they’re adding a new item to the menu or gonna start giving a different offering or whatever the case may be, you have to conceptualize what you’re selling, make sure there’s people interested in it, and then you have to start the supply and demand.

Could you just talk a little bit about when you started imagining these trips and then figuring out  okay, here’s what we’re gonna provide people if they sign up for this, and here’s what’s included and here’s how much I’m gonna charge. How did you even begin doing those things?

It’s not like you can look at a competitor and say, oh, they sell it for this. I’m gonna sell it for this. I mean, you were starting from scratch designing in your head what these offerings are.

ANGELA: Well, my background is in brand marketing, so everything that I do, I think of it as being grounded in the perspective of the customer first. So what would a customer want to see and experience and how do they wanna feel? That’s super important.

And so when I think about how I felt wanting to learn how to go mushroom foraging, of course, the number one thing people are afraid of is dying. They’re afraid they’re gonna eat something that’s gonna kill ’em. Right? So they’re like, okay, there’s a huge trust factor of safety that needs to be addressed first and foremost. And so I think about, okay, what are some of the other pain points you just do start doing competitive analysis?

Like, okay, of the other people who are, or outfit or other ways that you can learn how to mushroom forage, what’s annoying about those experiences? Well, you could in theory go out, drive three hours, be with a group of 60 other people and find zero and then go back home after you’ve already spent 150, 200 bucks and you’re like, that’s not cool.

But, I could in theory at least check the area beforehand and I can at least tell you that there won’t be any there.

Okay, again, that’s harder work on me, but the value of what does the customer want especially for their first time – they do have this magical vision, whether or not that’s realistic or not. You want them to walk away with this incredible wow moment that they’re just like, this is unbelievable. Washington is so cool. That’s what you have to aim for. Nothing shy of that. And there’s nobody who’s doing that. And I feel like that is the best thing that I can do is take what I’ve learned since Savor Seattle, and create that for Savor the Wild and build those dreams and memories.

And yes, it won’t be 30,000 people a year like we did before. Maybe a couple hundred, maybe even a thousand. Thinking real big here. But, it’s that personal touch and that impact that we have is so much deeper and it makes me happy. Truly. It makes me happy, and that is a marker of success that never was part of the equation before.

EMILY: It’s incredible, and it’s so important for people to remember that. And even if they’re staying in the same business that they’ve been in for 15 years, you can still adjust your relationship to the business. You can set boundaries, you can diversify what your offerings are, and there’s so much that can happen just with the owner changing their own relationship or putting themselves in the eyes of the consumer and saying, all right, what do we wanna make different? Or how do we want to improve the experience we’re currently providing?

You have different goals for this business like you are never gonna have 20 people doing these tours on behalf of your name and your brand. How has the new definition of what business success looks like for Savor the Wild impacted your life and your business?

ANGELA: I’ve never been so excited to be hands-on and boots on the ground like in the company trenches day to day. I was working real hard at my last job to get out of that, and I took 15 years to get there. And for the first time, I am excited to be the one to lead these tours, to create these products, to research how I do it.

And that meant two weekends of driving around and pouring down rain and scouting 20 different beaches to find the perfect places to take people that I’m like, okay, it’s gotta have good bathroom infrastructure. Oh, we can’t make people walk too far. It’s gotta be magical, but it’s  gotta be good for clams, oysters, and other kinds of shellfish. It’s this intersection of all of these factors. But I like it. And the reason why I’m okay and wanting to be in the trenches is because I am learning all new things every day.

I didn’t have that anymore with Savor Seattle. I wasn’t growing in this kind of capacity every day. And it feels good. And that’s what I tell people all the time, is that you should be a lifetime learner. If you’ve stopped or you feel like, oh, I know enough. Oh, I’m a pro at this already. That’s no fun. I’m having way more fun today than I have had in years. And yes, I’m not making as much money, certainly not right now, and I may never frankly, but that’s okay because I get to control my schedule. I get to decide what we’re gonna do.

And how did I know how to price it? Heck, I still don’t know how I’m gonna price it. There’s only one way to find out you don’t live with regret, right? You try it, it doesn’t work. You make adjustments and you try again. Wait, like, I think we did overprice one of our shellfish products when I first launched. I was real bummed about it. I licked my wounds and I was like, okay, sounds like it needs to be lower. Like I think we should rent boots and have that included as part of the experience ’cause nobody just walks around with like rubber boots with them, especially travelers. So now I have a bowling alley’s worth of rubber boots in my house.  That’s what it takes sometimes.

EMILY: And when you’re describing this new role you have in this new business, you’re creating – really in the trenches – that sounds so much like you have your hands on everything and you’re really involved, but Savor the Wild is not Angela Shen the way that Savor Seattle was.

Can you just express a little bit how you’re able to still be involved, be active, care so much about it, but have a little more separation of your identity this time around?

ANGELA: The jury’s still out, right? Because this is still new. It may very well end up defining Angela Shen 2.0 here in Seattle. It’s possible. Frankly, if I do my job right and I’m good at it, it should in some capacity. But I think this time around, because I don’t have all of my eggs in one basket, I am also a business consultant, I also have another business, an e-commerce business that I run, and I’ve got kids and a fiance that I really like most of the time.

So we’ll see. I really do think that I was lucky as an entrepreneur to have started a successful business early in my career. And so I have this privilege now of not having all of that pressure on me to say my success in life is defined by this one business. I did that. And I feel really proud of that and my kids got to see that.

And I think now it’s about showing them and myself. That I’m capable of more. Like I’m not just a one trick pony, even though that’s probably the biggest fear inside that I wrestled and probably continue to wrestle with after selling Saver Seattle is like, gosh, everybody’s question is, well, if she did that on her first go, the next thing’s gotta be bigger. Can’t wait to see what she does next. Like, Ooh, I don’t want it to be bigger and I don’t wanna let anybody down. So that was definitely a big part of what I think held me back from taking that leap and that jump. But again, can’t live with the price of regret and you can always go back. So that’s why I’m here now at Savor the Wild.

EMILY: Absolutely. That was great perspective I think for a lot of business owners. Even just some of those little tips like diversify what you’re interested in and what you’re working on, and also be okay with success being measured by your expectations and not the expectations of your customer or your community.

Of course, you want their opinion and feedback, and when you’re trying to see how things are received, what they think matters so much. But at the end of the day, you should really only be stretching yourself as far as you want to. And that’s kind of the definition of if your business owns you or if you own your business.

Do you have any advice for parents? I feel like I always try to ask my parent entrepreneurs if they have advice or ways that they set boundaries or anything that you want other entrepreneurs to think about if they’re trying to stretch themselves to be there for everyone.

ANGELA: Well, the reality is it can’t be everywhere all at once. There’s only so far that rubber band’s gonna stretch, so something has to give. And for me, I know that I’m a better parent, spouse, friend if I dedicate a little bit of time every day to myself. And the way that I do that is getting an early morning workout in. So I do have to sacrifice sleep in order to do that. So I wake up at 4:35 in the morning. Drive to the gym, then come home hopefully before they’ve gotten out of bed, and on the days that I don’t do that, I am still using that same time to get a jump on my workday when it’s quieter and I don’t have as many interruptions either from my inbox or from little people asking for attention.

It’s just like with a book. You can’t read all the chapters at the same time. So you are going to take a little bit of, from one, a little bit from here, but in the end, you’re writing that book however you wanna write it. And that’s just my approach. But I do know that the best version of me in the world, the most effective version of me in my business means taking a little bit of time just for me every day.

EMILY: As we wrap up, I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You spoke about how you supported important causes and other small businesses with the boxes during the pandemic. I think this is so amazing to hear and for other small businesses to learn from. Can you speak more on how you promote inclusion and diversity in your business ventures?

ANGELA: What I took away from running Savor Seattle in its second generation or iteration with Box Life was this importance of diversity and inclusion because our boxes really supported a lot of underrepresented voices in our community, and I didn’t fully realize how important that was to me until we were in it and we saw how hard our communities were hit.

And I think that with what I do now, I always think about the people that I see in the woods and at the beach. And I have to say that I don’t really look like your average mushroom forager. Most people I encounter in the woods look very different. And I think that that’s really important for me to represent a safe place for all that everyone is welcome. And not everyone’s gonna love that a young female Asian person is representing wild experiences in the state of Washington. But I don’t care. And I think that’s part of what my job is as being an ambassador, being true to who I am, and being true to this place.

And so I wanna reiterate that all people, regardless of how they identify or what they’re interested in and what they do for a living, everybody is welcome all the time.

EMILY: You really did such a great job of that when you were doing the different Give Back Box programs where you were celebrating different communities throughout Seattle. And something I really admired about that period was you were gonna go and support a ton of different groups and backgrounds because they mattered to you and you weren’t gonna worry about, if not everything resonated with all of your customers.

Can you just speak to that a little bit? ’cause I do think sometimes businesses get a little too laser focused and they’re afraid to do certain things or identify with things when really casting that bigger net and inclusion and diversity is normally a bigger driver to your bottom line than maybe business owners even consider.

ANGELA: It’s good for business, but also good for your soul. I think about if people sign up to spend time with me or choose not to sign up and spend time with me, and it’s because of my background or the potentially the very diverse mix of people that come on our experiences, then I’m not the right experience for them, period. And so this is who we are, who I am, and helping to change the face of people who you run into in the woods. I wanna be a friendly face, I’m a friendly face, and I’m being inclusive instead of exclusive, which is very different than what has happened to date.

And so that’s part of, I feel like a personal mission, that’s super important to me as someone who is of minority background and had to deal with adversity, to get to where I’m today and will continue to deal with it. But I wanna make it easier for others to come into this space and to do so in a way that feels safe and welcoming.

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