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February 8, 2016 On the record

Maine Foodie Tours gives visitors a taste of Maine

Photo / Tim Greenway Pamela Laskey, owner and director of Maine Foodie Tours, at Vervacious, one of the stops on a Portland tour.

When Pamela Laskey, director and founder of Maine Foodie Tours, sipped Campari on ice in Boston's North End in 2008 with the owner of one of the three culinary tours in the United States at the time, she suspected she had bitten into something big.

The culinary tourism trend has since swept large and small cities alike across the United States, and the world. The World Food Travel Association found that more than half of people travel to learn about or enjoy unique memorable eating and drinking experiences. They are most interested in local and authentic food and culinary experiences different from those they can get at home. They combine culinary with culture, heritage and nature-based activities.

That's a natural combination for Maine, which has those attributes and has attracted renowned chefs who like the local culture of innovative food and collaboration, says Laskey. She estimates there are close to 300 culinary tours in the United States now. Maine Foodie Tours already has walking tours in Portland, Bar Harbor, Kennebunkport and Rockland, and expects by summer to add one in Camden. Her company holds lunchtime “lobster crawls,” happy hours and tours that visit artisan shops and purveyors of local foods. Each stop includes just a taste of food so tour participants don't get too stuffed. They also learn about whoopie pies, Maine honey wine and local sources for the foods and drinks they are tasting.

“The culinary history of Maine is so rich,” says Laskey. “There's so much to talk about.” She has 19 guides across the multiple locations, and plans to add more as she expands. Mainebiz recently interviewed Laskey about her food tour. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: How did you get the idea for the business?

Pamela Laskey: I studied the tourism market in 2008 and realized that there was room for some new offerings, that the town really wasn't that flooded considering how many visitors come to Portland. At the time there were three culinary tours in the country being offered. One was in Boston's North End. So I took that tour and asked the owner to meet afterward. The tour was hugely successful for her. We opened our doors in June 2009.

MB: You've had 300% growth over the last three years. How did you do it?

PL: It's in revenue and it correlates with sales as well. We sold about 8,000 tickets in 2015 and plan to grow by 25% to hit our goal of 10,000 in 2016.

MB: Tell us about the tour.

PL: The Old Port Culinary Walking Tour in Portland visits seven locations over two-and-one-half hours and everyone provides a sample size of foods. You're definitely full at the end, but you're not stuffed. It's a combination of restaurants and bakeries and chocolatiers. The tour starts at Commercial Street and then goes to Monument Square, then weaves its way back down. It's three-quarters of a mile. The price is $49 to $59. We have 14 people tops on the tour.

MB: Do you have a financial relationship with the eateries you visit?

PL: Yes, I pay all the locations for the foods they serve, and that's a large part of the ticket price. Most of the time the owners, chefs or managers talk to the guests, telling them about the secrets behind the recipes or where they source their foods.

MB: Are there any new food trends?

PL: We are creating progressive dinners for six people. You go from one restaurant to another for different courses. Mediterranean food and tapas style with lots of small plates also are trends.

MB: What's the reaction to the tour?

PL: When we take people into K. Horton Specialty Foods [Portland], we serve some of the American Cheese Society's gold award-winning cheeses and people are shocked. I remember my very first customers were from Wisconsin. I took them to K. Horton, and Kris Horton blew them away. They were ordering wheels of cheese like there was no tomorrow. I did like impressing a family of cheddarheads. I tell people the cheese in Maine is like the wine in Napa. The best stuff never makes it out of the state.

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