Whether you’re visiting or being a tourist in your hometown, one of the best (and most fun!) ways to get to know a place is through exploring its food scene. And with donut cakes, popsicle cocktails and an abundance of eclectic entrees, Charlotte has quickly become a foodie city with a food scene worth exploring. And as new restaurants open weekly, outside of keeping a running list on your iPhone, it can be hard to keep up.
This is where FEAST Food Tours comes in. Founded by entrepreneur Kristi Martin, FEAST features walking food tours and is your guide to the food scenes in Uptown Charlotte and its surrounding areas.
Martin, who reluctantly calls herself a “foodie,” was born in Ohio but moved to Salisbury, NC when she was 11 years old. In 1991, she came to Charlotte to attend UNC Charlotte, where she received a degree in Business Administration, with a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Dance. She started her career in marketing and advertising, but shifted over to the hospitality industry, where she would spend 15 years in catering sales and event planning at venues like The Morehead Inn, VanLandingham Estate, and The Westin Charlotte.
Now that we’ve given you a taste of Kristi Martin and FEAST Food Tours, keep reading to learn how she entered the food industry, what inspires her, and more!
CBRBiz.com: Let’s start with your elevator pitch. If you only had 30 seconds to describe FEAST Food Tours, what would you say?
Kristi Martin (KM): FEAST is a culinary experience company connecting the community to the Charlotte culinary scene via neighborhood walking food tours, in-depth hands-on artisan experiences, and unique culinary adventures. Our neighborhood walking food tours provide the opportunity to gather around the table with chefs, restaurant owners, and food artisans to hear their stories, taste the city’s local flavors, and connect with our emerging food scene. Currently, tours run on a regular basis in NoDa, Plaza Midwood, Uptown, and South End while custom in-depth artisan and dining experiences can be planned to suit your personal needs. Our main goal is to provide enlightenment and entertainment, whether that is by finding a new neighborhood or restaurant to re-visit, being inspired by an entrepreneurial or chef story, or tasting ingredients/dishes you may not have had a chance to experience in the past.
CBRBiz.com: Now, tell us a little bit about yourself. Have you always been passionate about food? Have you always worked in the food industry?
KM: I definitely did not grow up surrounded by passionate cooks. I was a child of the 80s typically used to processed and prepackaged food products. When I jumped into the hospitality industry and was working alongside creative chefs to create menus for my clients’ weddings & events, I soaked in a whole new appreciation for food and beverage. Even to this day, I am always the student wanting to learn more about ingredients, cooking methods, and our culinary heritage.
CBRBiz.com: What inspired you to open a business like FEAST food tours? What was the transition to entrepreneurship like for you?
KM: I saw a TV show featuring food and beverage entrepreneurs that told the story of a woman who planned culinary vacations in Europe. I had no idea that the culinary tourism industry existed and quickly realized that represented each one of my passions in one career: food, beverage, travel, event planning, hospitality, tourism, and entertaining. Therefore, I wanted to do that!
However, I did not know how I was going to travel to Europe on a regular basis, so I sat on the idea for a few years, working on ways to build a similar business model or find a different career. I later came across a company that did food tours in Raleigh, NC and felt that if they can do that in Raleigh…we can do that here in Charlotte!
I was going to build the company while still having my full-time job and run tours on the weekends. However, when most of my event planning focused on weddings and other social events that happened on weekends, I quickly realized I would have to make the leap so there would not constantly be a conflict. I spent over 9 months on my exit strategy to leave my corporate job and set my household up for success (my husband is also self-employed). I left February 2012 and ran my first tour in June 2012.
CBRBiz.com: How do you think past experiences have benefited you in your new role?
KM: My past event planning experience has tremendously helped me in my new role. Aside from the culinary knowledge I gained from past chef coworkers, I learned the ins and outs of creating the perfect experience. Since most of my clients were for weddings, the number one priority was to create a memorable event for the bride and groom, their families and friends, and making it unique to their story. I also learned a lot about communicating event details to set the team up for success and honing my organization skills to pay attention to every detail. All of those past skills, experiences, and client interactions are used to create each food tour story, dining experience, and culinary adventure.
CBRBiz.com: When it comes to food, who are some of your greatest inspirations?
KM: Aside from my past Executive Chef coworkers, my first personal inspiration to pick me up out of processed food world was Ina Garten, Food Network’s The Barefoot Contessa. I own all of her cookbooks and appreciated her local food artisan and garden ingredients mentality. Since then, I constantly draw inspiration from my current set of “coworkers”: local chefs, farmers, and passionate food and beverage entrepreneurs. I also love studying our Southern foodways, heritage, and homesteading techniques to connect me with my food.
CBRBiz.com: As someone who is passionate about food, if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
KM: Pasta – if I’m allowed to have access to all of the other ingredients that you put on/in pasta!
CBRBiz.com: How do you think Charlotte’s food scene differs from other areas? Are there any unique benefits or challenges?
KM: “What is Charlotte’s food identity?” has been a very popular question lately. What is our “thing,” like Chicago or Philadelphia? I think our “thing” here in Charlotte is still evolving. I did hear Katy Kindred, Kindred Restaurant, recently speak at an event where she questioned whether Charlotte really should have a “thing”…”Will that hold us back as a city?” There could be some truth in that, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of such a vibrant and fast growing community.
We have three very unique benefits: we are a very diverse city…a “melting pot” of sorts, bringing a lot of different cultures together; we are in the middle of a large agricultural area that we can use for sourcing; and we are a strong, unified community where everyone in the food chain seems to be coming together to support one another.
As for challenges, I can not speak personally to this, but I do see chefs and food producers struggling through red tape, regulations, and older food code parameters. That limits what can be produced, menu creation, and general business operations that can hold us back as a highly recognized food city.
CBRBiz.com: Where are your go-to places to dine in Charlotte?
KM: That is the hardest question because I love all types of food and beverage while also having different needs/wants depending on the situation. Therefore, I may want a craft beer and a food truck, savor a multi-coursed Chef Tasting Menu with wine pairings, or sit with a craft cocktail and tapas. If I had to pick a common denominator or go-to place, it would be a local place where the staff is passionate about their craft. I love walking away enlightened by a new technique or ingredient while feeling welcomed by an old friend.
CBRBiz.com: If you could go back and do anything differently, would you? And what would it be?
KM: I would have grown the company a little bit faster than I am doing right now. I am glad that I took it slow…it built a solid foundation. However, I do feel I could have gotten more regular help a year earlier than I did so that more of my dreams could have been accomplished by now instead of being so buried into the operation and doing everything by myself in the early years.
CBRBiz.com: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur just starting out?
They say entrepreneurs need to wear many hats…it is very true. You can not just have a great widget or service idea, you will need to address all components of the business from HR to IT, Marketing to Accounting, Sales to Legal. I agree that there comes a time to hire out (or hire in) those professional skills that are not your strong suit, but some general knowledge about all of it will truly help in the beginning. Also, I will never forget a quote that one of my old managers used to say to me… “Slow and steady wins the race.” That mantra has helped me more times than not.
To learn more, visit FEAST Food Tour online!