Amplifying New York's neighborhood stories through a celebration of cuisine, community, and audio.
“We thought these audio stories would make a great experience that goes beyond someone going into a restaurant and passively eating food. Now you can listen to these stories behind the food or at least listen to the voices of the folks who make it.” -Bryan Lozano
Meet Homecoming. They’re a community-led organization working to support food-insecure New Yorkers by driving business to local New York restaurants. “We thought it would be this really great opportunity to bring visibility and business to the neighborhood, have local restaurant owners tell their stories, and work with local organizations and pantries that are doing great work,” says Bryan Lozano, one of the group’s founders.
Founded by a team of committed New Yorkers, first and second-generation immigrants, food lovers, and passionate community members, the group uses their collective belief in the power of food and their shared love of local businesses to work towards creating a city that empowers everyone.
The group’s first project, a restaurant crawl through Elmhurst, Queens, exemplifies this ethos.
Participants have a chance to experience the vibrancy of Elmhurst all at once. Tickets include an audio guide hosted by Gesso and signature dishes from partner restaurants, Coco Malaysian, Taiwanese Gourmet, Eim Khao Mun Kai, Indo Java, and Lao Bei Fang. Each ticket sold donates five meals to Homecoming’s local pantry partner. “We’re working with this very local organization called New Life, located on Queens Boulevard like two blocks away from our first stop on the restaurant crawl, and we’re really excited to support them,” says Lozano.
Reflecting on the preparation leading up to their first restaurant crawl, Lozano shared some insights on Homecoming’s story:
How did you get started? What led up to the decision to launch your first restaurant crawl in Elmhurst?
I grew up in this neighborhood. When I first immigrated here, I was about three. I realize how lucky I was growing up in this neighborhood, trying all these different cuisines, playing cricket and mahjong in the summer, getting all these different experiences. I’ve always repped Queens really hard and always had Elmhurst in the back of my mind to come back one day, sort of this romanticism of coming back to the neighborhood that gave me so much of my identity. When the pandemic hit, it just became a catalyst. I moved back and I really really wanted to do something for this neighborhood that did so much for me. At the same time, I was doing some work involving the Robinhood Foundation. There were different papers I was reading, and one of the things being put out there was this poverty tracker.
One of the studies they were doing was related to hunger and food hardship. The neighborhood with the worst numbers was Elmhurst, and this was pre-COVID. With the realities of what was happening with COVID and the fact that the pandemic was disproportionately affecting neighborhoods like Elmhurst, the restaurant industry, and all the things that make this neighborhood great, this was all the catalyst for me wanting to do something. So, we got together as a team and came up with this idea of doing something around restaurant recovery and food insecurity.
We have a lot of great restaurants in Elmhurst, but people don’t come out here as often. When you think of Queens, you either think of Astoria, Long Island City, or Flushing. So there’s this amazing middle of Jackson Heights, Corona, Sunnyside, Woodside, Elmhurst. I think people who love food do come out here but there’s just a lot of folks who don’t have a relationship with this neighborhood. To me, part of the story of Homecoming was not just getting people to come out here for food. It’s about building relationships with the people who are the staple of these neighborhoods.
What inspired your team to add an audio component to your restaurant crawl?
We’ve been interviewing restaurant owners, and we know as a new organization we want to be telling these stories. We thought an immersive audio app was the perfect pairing. We thought, when you eat at your friend’s parents’ house, for example, you know them deeply. You have a relationship with your friend and you know their parents are making this food for you - that feels like home. You’re coming into someone’s home and have a better relationship with the food because there’s already intimacy and understanding. We thought these audio stories would make a great experience that goes beyond someone going into a restaurant and passively eating food. Now you can listen to these stories behind the food or at least listen to the voices of the folks who make it.
For us, audio is also a really good opportunity to keep things safe while supporting the neighborhood. An immersive audio app seemed to me like this great opportunity to avoid people clumped together, and timed entry also allows us to not overwhelm our restaurant partners. An audio guide as a sort of wayfinding tool gives folks the option to explore by themselves or with their friends and listen to these stories.
What advice do you have for others who might be interested in incorporating location-based audio into their in-person events as a sort of hybrid experience?
Life after the pandemic includes really thinking about shifting the way we think about work, productivity, and of course virtual events. It’s given us an opportunity to experiment with hybrid models that really work. In-person events will always be great but what I think really works is when there’s a hybrid model that really augments an experience.
To start, experiment. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish with your organization’s event, just keep experimenting. For us, we’re really excited to pilot this, put this out there, and figure out ways to continue partnering on the audio side.
Attention is so hard to grab, but if someone is going to be at your event and you have their attention, to maximize that capability with technology is really important and a really great opportunity.
What’s next for Homecoming?
We have a number of ideas for what’s next! We do have something in mind for the next Homecoming event, which is really exciting but I don’t want to give anything away yet! It will be in the Queens neighborhood, so hopefully we’ll keep bringing New Yorkers back to these neighborhoods. We’re also planning to do some short-term things in between the next crawl as well.
We also won this grant from Patreon and a lot of it was an opportunity to expand BIPOC storytelling in cooking, and I think that’s exactly what we hope to do. The stories of the folks who own these restaurants are stories that don’t get told as often as they should, so we’re excited to expand. I think community over everything is one of the values we have as an organization, so we’re really excited.
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