When Clare and Jay Foster drove from Illinois to North Carolina to visit their daughter Amie in Lillington, they spent some time and money in Raleigh, too, by taking a paid tour of downtown eateries.
Along the way, Jason Smith, 18 Seaboard’s chef and owner, served them a red rainbow of sliced tomatoes and mixed them a peach sangria. And at other stops, Kimbap owner Kim Hunter served them dumplings, and pastry chef Jesica Sanchez welcomed them to PieBird with sweet and gooey pies.
At Yellow Dog Bread, there was a Hopscotch Music Festival party, but co-owner Tanya Andrews showed the Fosters, of Troy, Ill., to a butcher-block table in the middle of the kitchen dressed with place mats and utensils.
“After a baguette has cooled we will lay it down the center and look at its air pockets,” Andrews said as she cut and shared five different loaves of bread and explained the volatile bread-baking process.
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And that was only the first half of the Fosters’ tour, given by Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, a company that offers organized tours and tastings at local bars and restaurants.
The Fosters are among the more than 13 million tourists who visit Wake County and spend nearly $2 billion each year, and Taste Carolina is one of many small businesses capturing that money.
Since it started in Durham and Chapel Hill in March 2009 and in Raleigh the following May, Taste Carolina has paid more than $500,000 to restaurants in seven areas in North Carolina. Visitors account for about a quarter of its public tour customers for the business, which also provides private and corporate events.
“Personally, I love tourists,” said Lesley Stracks-Mullem, 41, co-founder of Taste Carolina. “They are all very so open-minded to learning about an area,” and often willing to spend a little more money on their vacation.
Find events, organizations
Customers find Taste Carolina, Stracks-Mullem said, through word-of-mouth referrals, Google searches, TripAdvisor and marketing tools and opportunities provided by convention and visitors bureaus.
“A big part of the story is the relationship with Visit Raleigh,” she said of the website and brand associated with the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They have been supportive all along the way.”
Loren Gold, the organization’s executive vice president, said sometimes small-business owners focus on the residential and worker population. They are missing, however, a next step of researching high traffic generators in their district, such as a hotel, an athletic facility or a music venue.
“I think they have to agree to do a little bit more research or hopefully reach out to us and learn a little bit more about the visitor demographic trends,” he said.
The organization, which is funded by portions of revenues from the Wake County Hotel Occupancy Tax and the Prepared Food and Beverage Tax, doesn’t require a membership fee.
Opportunities range from boutique retailers and restaurants pulling in leisure visitors, to floral, transportation and other services needed to support a business convention or major sporting event.
The Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau’s marketing department can help businesses get listed on visitraleigh.com, in it visitors guide and purchase related advertisements to boost their presence. The visitors bureau also holds quarterly marketing update meetings that outline what conventions are planned for the next 12 months.
The meetings offer opportunities for owners to explore partnership, bundling and promotional opportunities, Gold said.
The bureaus’ services also include tracking and creating a profile for upcoming conventions.
“We will put out convention alerts to partners that want the information,” Gold said.
Awareness is the first step toward pulling in tourists, said Tara Zechini, marketing and events director for Eschelon Experiences, a restaurant group with four properties, including The Oxford and Mura in Raleigh, and two more preparing to open this fall.
Zechini relies on the visitors bureau to find out what conventions and events are coming and when. They use that and their own research to identify opportunities to connect with those visitors, from placing an offering in goodie bags to giving deals and discounts to badge holders at visiting conventions.
“We found out, for example, with Farm Aid that there was an opportunity to place promotional materials in some VIP goodie bags,” Zechini said.
Eschelon Experiences also places ads in pamphlets handed out at conventions and other visitor-friendly maps and publications. It has also sent out street teams to visiting conventions and passed out maps to its restaurants and discount cards.
The thing that they do best, she said, is developing and maintaining relationships with hotels near their restaurants.
“So our owner and our managers make sure they stay in contact, from the people running the hotel, to the concierge to the valet parking guy,” she said.
Food tour leads to company
Taste Carolina’s co-founder Stracks-Mullem moved to Durham in 2006 and graduated from from UNC-Chapel Hill with a masters in business administration in spring 2008.
In October 2008, Stracks-Mullem planned an appetizer and wine tour in Durham and a barbeque tour across the state for her visiting brother-in-law, who was “a very adventurous foodie.”
“So, I started to think maybe there was a market for food tours,” she said. She did research and found they were offered in New York, Chicago, Savannah, Ga., and there was even one in Raleigh.
When Stracks-Mullem started to talk to restaurants about participating in the tour, she said, she learned that someone else was floating the idea.
Joe Philipose, of Morrisville, had also started exploring the food tour idea after he realized his neighbors didn’t seek out the farm-to-table restaurants popping up in downtown Durham.
The two connected and started Taste Carolina together.
When Stracks-Mullem first started giving tours, she saw less than two groups of tourists per month. Now, there are often one to two groups in every tour, she said.
The second half of the Fosters’ Taste Carolina tour included wine tastings at Wine Authorities and a trip to Escazú chocolate store, where owner Hallot Parson explained the bean-to-chocolate process and offered various shades of chocolate.
The tour ended at an Oktoberfest-inspired picnic at The Bottle Shop at Tyler’s Taproom. Manager Jason Cole rolled out six courses of cheeses, jam and beer, and ending the four-hour tour with an Austrian lime mead that came across as a thick dessert wine.
“This is going to be kind of like the after-dinner mint,” he said.
Amie Foster, 28, a U.S. Army captain stationed at Fort Bragg and living in Lillington, said she and her parents were impressed with the variety and substance of the tour, which included information about the history and transformation of the historic Mordecai and Oakwood neighborhoods.
“I think overall the best part of it was just getting to know a piece of Raleigh that I didn’t even know existed,” she said.