The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.
Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town's rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.
Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.
A Valentine's tour is also being planned.
Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.
Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue's owner, chef or manager.
A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.
The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner's. In addition to tasting different cuisines it's a sampling of three distinct districts � Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.
On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro'd the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It's all part of what Allen calls an "interactive thing." "
Valandra says, "Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They're sharing part of themselves."
"It's communion, it's sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there," says Trebbien.
Allen says OCT's getting strong buy-in from venue owners.
"They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They're getting potential customers. They're getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn't have walked through the door before."
"A "novice foodie" with "an appreciation for the culinary scene," Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT's marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism's a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.
"More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I've taken these tours around the country and I've loved the experience. I thought Omaha's ready for this."
Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He's dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She's an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described "serial entrepreneur" has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.
"It became obvious we needed each other," says Valandra. "We work really well together and complement each other."
"We have three different skill sets that intertwine," says Trebbien.
"It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone," says Allen. "it's taken off since we came together."
Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha's assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It's why they've moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn't been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market's overdue to be tapped.
"Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere," says Trebbien. "There's a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha's being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that."
Allen says OCT's not just for visitors but for locals.
"Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone."
While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there's the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.
"It's part of the culture," says Allen.
For schedule and booking details, visit www.omahaculinarytours.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.