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.
“My real dad passed away.”
Lisa and Dan went to high school together in Arizona. They fell out of touch when they went off to college. Lisa ended up in Reno, Nevada, where she met and married Graham “Grady” Marks and had Lindsay and her younger brother Kyle.
When Lindsay Marks was 12 years old, her father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and died in 1995.
“Through the grapevine and old friends, [Dan] found out my mom’s husband had passed away. He waited some time and then reached out to her. Then, later, when he was on a business trip [in Reno, from San Diego], they ended up having lunch,” Marks says. “Then they just started seeing each other a little bit more.”
In 1997, they married, and the family moved to Carlsbad. The transition was a difficult one for Marks. “When Dan came into the picture it was very hard. I was not a nice kid.”
She laughs at the memory then puts it another way.
Since she hit adulthood, they’ve been getting closer. He’s a successful businessman (she tells me twice that he was the project director for the San Diego Airport Terminal 2 expansion), and she goes to him for advice. They drink beer together. She hopes he’ll walk her down the aisle one day.
She called him “Dad” for the first time in a 2012 Christmas card.
Back at Magnolia, Dan McGuckin throws an arm around Marks’s shoulder and says of her charisma, “We’re a little biased, but we’ll take credit.”
Marks says these events and the networking they create for her within the foodie industry reinvigorate her “happiness factor.”
It shows. Although she’s tired from the 30-plus hours she put into this event, on top of her full-time job, she flits among her guests, chatting and laughing.
Although she says she’s always had an upbeat personality, she’s had to work at cultivating a professionalism to counter her naturally casual demeanor. But sometimes it’s the casual tactic that works best. “I had a restaurant owner back out just a week before an event,” she says. “I was super excited to have this particular restaurant onboard. But instead of calling and emailing and going over [everything I’d already told him about Dishcrawl] I thought I would go in, grab a drink, make some small talk, show my face, and bring a few people with me. After eating, drinking, and having some fun, the owner and I were able to chit-chat on a friendly level. I brought up Dishcrawl and all it has to offer, and just like that, I was able to reseal the deal.”
According to Marks, the average Dishcrawl ambassador lasts one or two events, which makes her, despite having less than a year’s experience in the company, an expert.
“They offered me full-time after my first event. They don’t do that for everyone,” she says. “They want you to do three events a month and a weekend event. But, the money’s not there.”
The salary they offered was $20,000 a year, plus 30 percent commission. She turned it down.
There have been other ambassadors in the county — one in La Jolla, one in Carlsbad, one in Chula Vista, and one in San Diego — before Marks, but none have done more than one event.
“It’s a lot of work and not a lot of money,” she says. “I’m okay with that, because I love it.”
She is also paying her dues as the “right-hand girl” to chef Chad White, co-owner of Sea Rocket Bistro and owner of Plancha Baja Med, who calls her “the Regulator.”
“I’m his personal assistant,” she says. “So I am helping him run his business. I handle setting up events, coordinating with restaurants and other chefs. When I go to the events with him, I’m responsible for talking about him, talking to the press about him. And if he has a solo event, I’ll host it so he doesn’t have to come out of the kitchen and worry about any of that. I do the organizational side of his business.”
She estimates the time spent on White’s business at 15-plus hours a week. It’s not a paid position at the moment, but for her, it’s another “foot in the door.”
Marks and boyfriend Dan live together in North Park and make it a point to have dinner together a few nights a week, even when it means dining on the job. Tonight, the 6ʹ5ʹʹ bearded boyfriend is in attendance, hanging back, playing the behind-every-good-woman-is-a-good man role, and watching Marks shine. Their attire makes a similar statement: his black-and-blue plaid shirt reads low-key and casual next to her glam strapless shirt and dark-wash jeans combo.
After more drinks, chicken wings, and baby-back ribs at Magnolia, the group heads toward Horton Plaza to Gourmet India, where the ceiling and walls’ draped red and purple fabrics create a sense of intimacy in the small restaurant. The staff appears overwhelmed by the sudden presence of 40 people. Marks, whose smile remains wide, and her energy lively, will later confirm that, yes, this is the restaurant that signed on just yesterday.
This was the first time she did not have paperwork signed for all restaurants by the week or week-and-a-half prior to the event. With a week to go, two of the four restaurants cancelled. One, the Grant Grill, had to back out because they got a buyout, or someone who booked the whole place for the evening.
“Who are we?” Marks says with a shrug. “We’re just tiny Dishcrawl.”
The second cancellation was more mysterious. The restaurant, which she won’t name, was excited and ready to go, but when it came time to set up a meeting to sign the paperwork, they wouldn’t call her back. So, she had to scramble, making calls, sending emails, and stopping by to speak with management in the hopes that she could get two more restaurants on board.
It was a close call, but no one in her group seems too put out by the insufficient number of tables or the confused staff at Gourmet India. They sip their ginger lemonade and lassi, munch on lamb naan and chicken kebabs, and keep the place lively with their raucous laughter.
At the last stop, Kamikaze 7, a few members of the group have fallen off, which Marks says happens each time. But when she makes her brief, introductory speech, it’s with as much enthusiasm as when the evening began.
“So, this place is awesome,” she says. “They’ve got this sushi vibe going, but they also have a bunch of other stuff.”
The cute young waitresses in trucker hats, short shorts, and sneakers stand back while Marks goes on to give her thanks to everyone for coming. She concludes with the requisite plea for social media shares. “Please tweet, Facebook, Yelp us, and share with everyone you know. And if you go back to one of the restaurants, make sure you mention that you came on a Dishcrawl.”
The bloggers and the Yelpers and the tweeters hunch over their big-eye tuna and edamame guacamole and take more pictures of their food.
Later, as the evening winds down and the “crawlers,” take their leave, most stop by the bar where Marks sits eating tempura spam with Chad White, who has come at the tail end to offer his support. Marks offers smiles, hugs, handshakes, and many thanks. When blogger BriGeeski leaves, Marks hugs her and then calls out after her, “Write about me!”