Meet Sheena Dignam, Ireland’s best food tour guide

By Katia Valadeau
29th July 2019

I met Sheena Dignam over two years ago, and I still remember her catching enthusiasm, her deep knowledge of Irish food and her absolute love for Galway.

Sheena is the creator of Galway Food Tours and I met her at the media launch of the Galway Food Festival  where she was our tour guide.

Sheena is pure passion and when we met, it was obvious that she was onto a great thing. She has been blazing a trail ever since: Her tour is the best one I’ve been on in Ireland. Sheena taps into the great food community in Galway and makes you feel like you are part of it.

She is winning awards and forging her career from sheer passion and hard work and I am a huge admirer of her.

I’m talking to women the Irish food industry, so caught up with Sheena…

How did your career path bring you here?

I am originally from Wicklow, but I grew up in France, in the Loire Valley where I fell in love with food, and later wine. I decided to study Culinary Arts (or a BTS en Arts Culinaires de la Table) and chose this passion as a career path.

When I moved back to Ireland I got to work with many restaurant start ups and later I moved into Chocolate. I opened Cocoa Atelier (owned by La Rousse Foods).  It was very interesting to help design everything from product range right down to the packaging.

When we opened the shop we used to have ‘Fab Food Trails’ come in with their tours and I thought it was a brilliant idea. I moved to Galway, and saw the opportunity with all the amazing producers to start tours.

Originally I wanted to change the perceptions of my French camarades on Irish food.

I was working full time in Kai and started the tours part time four years ago and it became a full time job two years ago. I now have 2 employees, and we have seen a growth of 70% from 2017 to 2018 – this year is off to a good start too.

How does your career fulfil you?

Absolutely, my passion is food and drink. There is so much energy in the Irish food and drink industry. I love showcasing this on a daily basis to visitors in Ireland. We are still known for our stews, Guinness, and brown bread, but there is so much more and that’s what I get a kick out of.

What are your professional ambitions?

I would love to help roll-out food tours around the country. In conjunction with Skillnet and Taste For Success, myself and Gosia Letwoska have developed a 5-day training course on how to set up your own Food Tour business

What challenges women face in the food industry in Ireland?

The perceptions of old ‘women in the Kitchen’ mentality.

Which woman in the Irish food industry inspires you and why?

It has to be Mary Farrell – I love what she does and she has finished her PhD in Equality & Head Chef positions in the Irish industry.

What can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

I think getting young culinary students involved in this movement as early as possible so they can see what is happening at the moment in the industry and what can be accomplished.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Winning Best Food and Beverage Experience in Ireland 2019 for Galway Food Tours at the Irish Tourism Industry Awards.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be more confident and assertive, and trust your gut.

What are the top skills needed to be a food tour guide?

You need to be passionate about people and culture. People connect with stories, and want to know why you are bringing them here or there, and what the story behind each place is.

You need to be able to relay those stories with passion, as people can see straight away if you are passionate about the produce and places featured on your tours.

You must be good with people, at one end you work with so many businesses and they need to feel a connection with you as that transpires to the welcome you get when you’re on tour, and on the other end you are sensing the dynamic of the group (not to leave anyone out), keep the conversation flowing and asking them questions.

Being a food lover is essential. It’s a food tour, if you are not interested in Ireland’s food heritage, producers, chefs, etc, you will not be able to tell those stories to your guests.

Finally, you must be a good public speaker.  Your body language and voice are important, you need to be heard and keep people’s attention. It’s like being on stage.