Karen Kelley called her daughter Samantha Bruner, 28, from the second stop on a restaurant tour in Aspen almost two years ago and told her they needed to start their food tour business.
“It must have been by the end of the month we were meeting with people and had our business plan,” Kelley said.
For about a year and a half now, Colorado Springs Food Tours has been leading groups of people on tours of restaurants in downtown, Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs.
As word spread about the tours, they gained popularity, Bruner said.
“March was amazing for us,” she said.
The tours were booked to 75 or 80 percent of capacity, she said, which is a really strong statistic for the early spring.
The numbers through the last summer and fall were regularly higher than 80 and 85 percent, Bruner said. The capacity on each of the company’s weekly tours is 12 people. And if they continue to gain community interest, Bruner said she expects to add new tours to the summer lineup.
This year, they added a monthly brewery tour that has been extremely popular, Bruner said.
The brewery tour is the only one where transportation is provided, Bruner said. All of the others are walking excursions where a guide takes a group of no more than 12 people from restaurant to restaurant to try samples of the food and drink.
The tour business makes money from the ticket sales, which range from $29 for a four-stop dessert-and-wine tour in Old Colorado City to $49 for a six-stop tour downtown to $79 for the brewery tour.
The company’s expenses include the tour guide, Bruner’s time in setting the tours up and the van rental for the brewery tour. The restaurants provide the food.
The tour includes historic explanations and facts about the area, the architecture and the restaurants themselves. Each of the six restaurants gets about 20 minutes with the group to explain the restaurant concept, the food and the mission.
“I view it as advertising and marketing,” said Brett Beavers, who owns downtown restaurant Conscious Table.
He doesn’t mind providing the food for small groups or taking the time to explain his farm-to-table concept to diners.
“I figure, if I can get you to eat the food, you’ll come back,” Beavers said.
And he’s right. The tours have been effective marketing for him. About 60 percent of the people who try his restaurant on the tour come back for a complete meal on another occasion.
They usually come back for the first time between 15 and 60 days after the tour, he said.
Stories like Beavers’ explains the tour’s success, Bruner said.
“I approach this company the same way I would approach any other type of advertising or marketing business,” Bruner said.
The restaurants don’t pay Colorado Springs Food Tours, but they do have to supply the food and the labor.
Bruner has prepared a kit full of demographics information and statistics about how many of the tour participants come back to patronize the business. The statistics vary depending on the restaurant, but all of the restaurants say they enjoy repeat business thanks to the tours.
Most of the people — about 60 percent — who go on the tours live in the Colorado Springs area. That makes the marketing value of the tours that much greater, Bruner said, because people who live nearby can become repeat customers.
In most cases, the tour introduces people to dining experiences they’ve never had in their own community and might not even know exist.
“Someone who lives up north by Monument, downtown could be uncharted territory for them,” Bruner said.
Aaron Duff, the manager at Judge Baldwin’s Brewing Company in the Antlers Hilton, said most of the people who come to his restaurant on the tours have never been there before.
“I think a lot of people are intimidated by the hotel and they don’t really know what’s in here,” Duff said.
The tour lets people know the restaurant is there and that it’s easy to get to.
Bruce Harris, manager at the Stagecoach Inn in Manitou Springs, said most people who visit the restaurant on the tour have never been there before.
“It’s always one of my first questions,” he said. “And we get a lot of people who say, ‘We’ve lived here 30 years and have never eaten here.’”
He typically serves the restaurant’s signature smoked pheasant chowder and homemade biscuits with cherry preserves. The food is a hit, and people do return. In the summer, when the Manitou tour includes more tourists, people come back within the next couple days.
During the off season, the tour is mostly locals from Colorado Springs, Harris said. They come back and he’d like to see some of them become regulars in order to help sustain the business through the slow winter.
Pam Braverman, manager at the Savory Spice Shop downtown, said people do often return with their 15-percent off coupon after the tour. The shop makes up a drink or popcorn or dip to showcase its inventory on the tour. A lot of tour participants actually use their coupons on the spot and buy spices during the tour even if they don’t become regular repeat customers.
“If out of 12 people, two or three come back or even if one comes back, that’s one more person,” Braverman said.
And that makes the amount the venues spend on food a small price to pay for marketing they know reaches clients, Beavers said. He knows he’s reaching people — interested people at that — with this targeted marketing effort.
Bruner and Kelley have ideas for other tours they could add as the business grows — everything from patio tours, gluten-free restaurants, fine dining and hole-in-the-walls to singles tours.
“We have a lot of ideas,” Bruner said.