What began with two friends poking around some Ann Arbor food shops on a summer afternoon has turned into a flourishing culinary-tour business.
Taste-Full Tours, the idea of the friends, both named Laura, began to take shape even as they drove back from Ann Arbor that day.
“This is so much fun,” Laura Gononian told Laura Romito, who had shepherded her to some of the places she loved. “You should do this as a business.”
Later, they talked a little more and ended up devising a business plan. “But we put it on the back burner,” Romito says. The stumbling block was transportation. They needed a bus to make the idea work, and that was not in the budget.
To the rescue came Chris Ramos, whose company, The Night Move, ferries people from Royal Oak and Ferndale to downtown Detroit on Friday and Saturday nights in a 30-passenger bus. Because the bus was used only on the two weekend nights, it was available at other times. And the bus had an added benefit, they learned; it runs on eco-friendly biofuel, leaving a zero-carbon footprint — something they appreciated.
With the transportation hurdle cleared, Taste-Full Tours was born. “Although it seems that it all just fell into place, it was really a lot of hard work,” Gononian says.
Their partnership has deep roots. The women first met 20 years ago when they were students at Albion College. They went their separate ways, however, and didn’t see each other until a chance meeting a few years ago at Williams-Sonoma, where Gononian works part time and Romito does occasional food demonstrations.
Romito, the chef of the pair, has a degree from Schoolcraft College and restaurant experience at the former Golden Mushroom, as well as at Holiday Market in Royal Oak. She’s also a former high-school teacher. Gononian, meanwhile, has traveled the world in her job with an international environmental concern, and has lived in Chicago, New York, Boston, and Armenia.
Gononian is the business-minded, organized half of the duo. “We complement each other,” Romito says. “I like working with her.”
Their culinary tours travel to local food shops, bakeries, breweries, farmers markets, and restaurants, with an emphasis on small, owner-operated establishments that meet their standards. “Laura and I are careful about research,” Romito says. “We go in first and eat and don’t say anything, and then we go back a second time and give them our materials. We haven’t had a single business say no.”
The four- to five-hour tours, each with a theme, go to several places where participants get tastings and samples of the products, as well as insight from the owners. Once a tour ticket is purchased, “They don’t have to buy anything else,” says Romito, although many of them do.
Their inaugural tour on Jan. 29 was a private one for a graphic-design group. It visited international markets and restaurants, including Kashat Market, a Middle Eastern shop in Oak Park; Zumba, in Royal Oak; and Noble Fish, in Clawson.
So far, the most popular of the several outings they offer has been the “beer and barbecue” tour that visits three barbecue spots. They went to Lazybones Smokehouse in Roseville; Kirk’s, in Birmingham; and Shilla Korean restaurant, in Clawson, Romito says, where the owner “was just wonderful. He went above and beyond.” That tour is sure to be repeated, she says, as will the pizza tour that visited Supino Pizza, in Detroit’s Eastern Market; Loui’s Pizza, in Hazel Park; Tomatoes Apizza, in Farmington Hills; and Amici’s, in Berkley.
The women have found that the proprietors seem to enjoy the tours as much as the participants do. “They’re so proud of what they do … and they’re extremely generous. That’s the part I didn’t anticipate,” Romito says.