Deborah Molise is a devoted foodie. She says one of her passions in life has been discovering the best locally owned and operated food stores and eateries in the small towns of America. Molise traveled throughout the United States taking in dozens of city food tours before opening her own tour in St. Petersburg and Gulfport. "I couldn't have done it two years ago, but now downtown St. Petersburg has grown so much that there is enough diversity for a good experience," says Molise, who launched Eat.Sip.Indulge tours last summer.
She conducts walking tours that feature tastings from locally owned restaurants and samples from food shops that specialize in such things as spices, teas, chocolates or cooking oils. Most of her tours are held on weekends. "I'm coming up on my first year in business, and it's been successful so far," says Molise, who is from Crowborough, a small town about 30 miles from London. This mother of two spent 20 years in Chicago, a city that has a long tradition of food tours. "There are places like Chicago, New York, San Francisco Boston and New Orleans that have a rich food culture and enough diversity for several types of tours based on food," she says. These cities also are tourist destinations and have numerous eateries within walking distance. Interest in food and unique restaurants has exploded thanks to cable networks such as the Travel Channel, the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. And food tours have been popping up in mid-sized and smaller towns. "I'm getting a number of out-of-state tourists who are visiting friends or relatives here, as well as people from the Tampa area and other parts of Florida who don't know what St. Petersburg or Gulfport has to offer," Molise says. A food tour is also a good alternative for dating couples, she says. One Saturday afternoon tour was a typical mix. It included St. Petersburg newlyweds and her parents visiting from Chicago; two women friends from Tampa who left their husbands at home for the day; a dating couple from Sarasota who were looking for food experiences; and a married couple from Safety Harbor who were new to the area. Stops on the 21?2-hour tour included a shop that specializes in cooking oils and balsamics, a wood-fired pizza restaurant, an Irish pub, a chocolate shop, a spice shop, and a vegetarian restaurant. "I have about 25 places that I work with so the tours can be changed around for variety," Molise says. She also comes up with special tours, such as a "chocolate indulgence" walk close to Valentine's Day; a birthday party food tour for kids; picnics; an "art brunch" that includes a local artist; and a brew and bite tour. She also is offering a summer tour that boasts "more eating, less walking." Molise says people also are discovering the quaint bayside town of Gulfport, where Molise lives. "I just love showing people how interesting Gulfport is," says Molise. Stops in Gulfport might include sampling fried green tomatoes at Peninsula Inn; fish and chips at the Village Pub; a tasting at La Cote Basque; and a stop at T and Me, where Chef James usually whips something special. "One of the best things about Deborah's tour is that she cares about the local business, and she includes some local history during the tour," says James Ryan, owner of the Kalamazoo Olive Oil Company. Ryan's shop on Central Avenue is the launch point for many of Molise's tours. Open three years, the shop offers more than 30 oils and vinegars, sweet and savory. "We've got a lot of repeat business from people who discovered us while on the tour," he says. Molise has dozens of testimonials from people who enjoyed her tours. "It was a wonderful experience," says Karen Smith, of Palm Harbor. "We discovered Gulfport, and we want to keep coming back." "It was different to go to all these places in one day with strangers and try the food," says Mark Wilson, a visitor to St. Petersburg from Tennessee. "It was like discovering a hidden world right there all along that I never would've happened upon on my own," says Pinellas County resident Gray Dean. For a list of tours and rates visit Eat.Sip.Indulge website at www.esiflorida foodtours.com/