In two years Cristina McCarter has taken City Tasting Tours from a part-time gig to a full-time career, chewing and walking her way through the delicious streets of Memphis one restaurant at a time.
Launched May 4, 2016, City Tasting Tours is a walking food tour company owned by McCarter, a native Memphian. During the usually half-mile tours, guests sample local cuisine from three to five restaurants and learn more about the chefs, food and city where they are eating along the way.
“There was a need for something like this,” she said. “I would take food tours out of town and think, ‘I wish Memphis had a locals-focused tour.’ After building my own following through the food blog, I was told it should be me that pursues it.”
McCarter offers six tours ranging from $45 to $75. One of her signature experiences, A Tour of Tasteabilities, melds black history with food from downtown and Soulsville.
Brunch So Hard, held on Sundays and birthed from McCarter’s lack of birthday plans one year, takes diners to three brunch spots with cocktails included. On June 1, McCarter will launch the Crosstown Culinary Crawl featuring three Crosstown restaurants and tastings from the new Crosstown Brewing Company.
The first tour McCarter hosted two years ago spread faster than she expected after she posted it on Facebook. Major media outlets and blogs picked up the post, which garnered more than 300 shares the next morning.
She wasn’t ready.
“I didn’t have enough restaurants yet and my phone was blowing up. It was crazy. Then all the news people called asking questions. I had basically a week from there to get it together,” she said. “I called my mom and was like, ‘Mom, I don’t even have my T-shirt yet!’ I went to Walmart and got a polo shirt, and had City Tasting Tours embroidered on it.”
Next, she went to the restaurants she had been talking to and told them she was sold out for May.
“I told them if you’re in, then you need to be in so we can get this thing going,” she said. “I had two friends take a mock tour with me before to make sure the route made sense and to see if the portions made sense.”
There were 16 people on the first tour, which cost $55 per ticket. McCarter offered a special for locals with ID for $25 off the ticket price.
“Prices are all inclusive. All you have to do is show up hungry,” she said.
McCarter has a roster of 15 restaurants and growing, with more than 70 percent of her tour clientele consisting of locals who have never heard of some of the eateries.
She’s hired four part-time employees and plans to hire at least one full-time employee by the year 2020.
McCarter tries to avoid what she calls tourist traps and focuses on places with good food that may not receive much attention. Understandably, BBQ restaurants in Memphis are unavoidable.
“Memphis makes millions off of BBQ, but I want to spread that wealth to other places like Scoops Parlor, Rizzo’s Diner and Makeda’s Cookies any chance I get,” she said.
Kevin Kern, vice president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said there are 117 BBQ restaurants in the city and around 2,500 restaurants total. More than 11.5 million people visit Memphis annually, according to the MCVB tourism industry fact sheet and 64 percent visit for music and food.
VisaVue Travel, a database of transactions by Visa customers, shows that 19 percent of Memphis visitors report that Southern home cooking and BBQ are what they “love most” about Memphis.
“Visitor spending patterns in the top four categories related to travel and tourism spending – including car rental, lodging, entertainment and restaurants – indicate that 49 percent of travel spending by visitors to the Memphis MSA from national origin markets goes to local restaurants. Meanwhile, 64 percent of travel spending by regional visitors to the Memphis MSA goes to local restaurants, illustrating the importance of our culinary scene, especially for regional travelers,” Kern said of the VisaVue data.
McCarter said the Memphis grind is contagious and with a thriving culinary scene, now seems like the best time for her to be in business. City Tasting Tours is her first entrepreneurial venture.
“I don’t know what I was thinking getting married, starting a family and a business all at the same time, but I’m very impulsive like that and it’s been worth every tear. I never cried or felt defeated until I started all of this. I also had to learn to not take things personal because everyone just won’t see your vision,” she said.
“I’ve had people who I thought were cool with me deny my services or discredit what I do, but I know what I’m doing is innovative, amazing and will help in a small way of not only giving Memphians a sense of pride in their city but also giving visitors a reason to come visit more than once.”
McCarter wants people to understand that Memphis is a city with James Beard-nominated chefs and Food Network and Travel Channel featured restaurants.
“There used to be a time where you could say, ‘I wish Memphis had this or that,’ and in the entertainment and culinary side of it we are filling those gaps quickly.”
McCarter said part of the key to her success has been lots of 15-minute naps, a good team, and finding good capital and strategic partnerships. She has collaborated with known guides such as Carolyn Michael-Banks with A Tour of Possibilities, an African-American history tour of the city. Now, they have a tour together.
“Collaborations have also opened other tour guides’ eyes to see that we can all work together in this industry to make sure every guest has a great experience here,” she said.
“Every visitor isn’t going to be right for my tour, so to properly care about this city you have to know where to send people.”