Working as an event planner for more than 15 years and traveling around the country, Todd Gauman has learned what it takes to create a great tour experience. When he returned to Cleveland from Florida several years ago and noticed the local culinary boom, he knew the time was ripe for a unique tour experience spotlighting the connections between Cleveland restaurants and their communities.
Earlier this year, Gauman and some friends began NEO Food Tours, starting out with a walking tour through Ohio City, and moving on to Tremont and Little Italy. July's signature tour visited the E. 4th neighborhood and other tours are planned for Shaker Square, Public Square and Gordon Square. The events have been selling out quickly, and the group will be launching new tour experiences—Gastrobike Tours, Market Discovery and Winery and Brewery tours—in coming months. Metromix recently talked with Gauman about the inspiration for these tours, as well as what makes Cleveland a hot culinary spot.
What can people expect on a Cleveland food tour?
We want to show people the dynamics of a neighborhood; what great places they are. When people come into Cleveland for dinner, they may drive in, valet, go to Lolita and have a wonderful dining experience, but still, their only recognition of Tremont is what they see on the news. As it turns out, 80 percent of what they see is negative. We want to highlight the positive side of Cleveland neighborhoods. We started out with our signature tour, which is a fine dining experience held once a month where we go to four to six restaurants. We limit the number of tickets to 18 people; we've discussed pushing to 20 but we want to create an intimate experience for guests. We want to do this by creating direct relationships through the tours. Our goal is for guests to go back to wherever they may live and act as positive ambassadors for the neighborhood and these restaurants they've visited.
How do you choose the restaurants for the tours?
We try to choose restaurants that have a story behind them. Brandt Evans at Pura Vida [the first stop on the E. 4th signature tour] has a terrific story. He's really been pushing local sustainable dining and we are psyched about having him for the E. 4th tour. The culinary industry is an economic engine that is beginning to drive the economy of Northeast Ohio. Ohio City, for example, would not be what it is today without its restaurants. And the current development trend in Tremont traces its roots back to Michael Symon and the original Lola. These restaurants were crucial in the development of neighborhoods.
Why did you decide to expand the offerings?
We soon discovered that people were really interested in this and there was a lot of potential for other types of experiences using food as that drive to lure people into these experiences. So, we started looking at the different things we could offer; developing the Gastrobike food tours and other events. These events have a similar feel to the signature food tours, but with more casual restaurants. We'll do one Gastrobike tour each a month kicking off in August. We're also going to be starting Market Discovery tours, through the different local markets. We'll feature the West Side Market, the Tremont Farmer's Market and Kamm's Corner. There are some great people in these markets and everyone has stories to tell. We've had such a positive response, that we're trying to expand through the end of this year and next. We really want to start to connect the dots in Northeast Ohio, to show how we can create a regional identity, that we are all part of this big melting pot of culture and culinary communities.
What's different about Cleveland's dining scene?
I've talked to a lot of chefs and one of the things that is really unique about Cleveland is that a lot of the chefs are not only focused on their culinary creations, but they have really looked outside of the box for ways to create communities. The neighborhoods themselves have deep ties with the restaurants. We wanted to create an event that showcases this relationship. We want to teach people about the neighborhoods and show what an important role that these restaurants have in the neighborhoods.
What's the response been to the tours been so far?
We are continually trying to improve the experience, so at the conclusion of our tours we send out a survey. The feedback we've received from these has been really positive. Our guests say they have learned things they didn't know before the tours. They have told us that they really didn't expect to learn as much and have been pleasantly surprised. We also poll people on the tour at the restaurants to see if they have dined in that restaurant previously. Usually 80 to 85 percent of the people have not been in that restaurant and we're excited to be providing a new experience for them.
What do you see as the up-and-coming area in Cleveland?
Looking at it from an urban planning stance and progress initiative stance, Kamm's Corner is the hidden gem of Cleveland. They have some really dynamic things that are happening there. For example, they have a great walkable, sustainable-living community, great local retail, a viable farmer's market featuring regional purveyors and farmers. They have great casual restaurants and pubs, access to transportation, proximity to the MetroParks, and a great cultural identity with their Irish roots. The only piece that this area needs is a fine dining restaurant, and I believe that will happen in the next few years. One particular story from this neighborhood is that of Patrick Campbell, owner of PJ McIntryre's Irish Pub. Patrick was from the neighborhood and toured with Lord of the Dance as a lead principal dancer. He met his wife while with Lord of the Dance, and they both came back to the Kamm's Corner neighborhood and built this great local restaurant with an Irish dance studio above. You find all these great stories of hometown people investing in their neighborhoods throughout Cleveland. Gordon Square is another area where what has transpired there in the past few years has transformed that entire neighborhood. That's the challenge we have—Northeast Ohio is filled with so many great neighborhoods, small towns and cities each with their own story to tell. But we're gradually making our way through the region, one culinary adventure at a time.
For more information about NEO Food Tours, visit www.neofoodtours.com, or follow them on Twitter @NEOFoodTours or like them on Facebook. The next tour is through Shaker Square and tickets can still be purchased here.