Madison Eats Food Tours navigated the pandemic like a tour de force

Otehlia Cassidy couldn’t have guessed that her 10th year as a food tour host would be marked by reinventing and relaunching her business.
people on bikes for an e-bikes tour
Courtesy of Otehlia Cassidy
Otehlia Cassidy hosts food tours to create culinary experiences with local food businesses and chefs. She also partners with Madison BCycle for bicycling tours.

If there’s anything I’ve been reminded of over the past year and many months, apart from just how comfy yoga pants are, it’s how central partnerships are to the success of my business and how grateful I am for the community around me.

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, I shut down my business and had no doubt we’d be back open in a couple of weeks. We all know how that story went. Our team soon realized that we would have to come up with something besides tours to stay afloat.

Fast-forward to May 2020 and we launched our first shippable local food kit, which was a cheese board assortment for Mother’s Day featuring all-local products.

I give major props to people in my industry who decided to go full force into shipped food box sales — some of them within a few weeks of shutting down. A few of those individuals saw greater success with the boxes than tours. I quickly realized the logistics of packing and shipping meant this avenue wasn’t for me. But the solidarity and creativity of our community was. I reached out to Christine Ameigh, owner of Slide Gourmet Potato Chips, a fellow business owner and boss babe whom I admire deeply. We partnered up to create heat-and-eat meals by local producers, many of whom work out of her commercial kitchen space, Christine’s Kitchens. Thus, Madison TrEats was born.

Although sales from the kits weren’t a huge revenue generator for us, the relationships we developed through Madison TrEats kits are priceless. In the year that we offered the kits, we put about $42,000 back into the community through sales and supported 60 small businesses, half of which are owned by people of color. Those stats make me happy, but the lasting partnerships we formed in that time are what I’m most proud of.

Otehlia Cassidy squatting in front of the Capitol building

Courtesy of Otehlia Cassidy

As the weather warmed and restrictions lifted, our team was eager to get back to tours. We had many requests coming in asking when we would start to offer tours again. As we reached out to our restaurant partners with renewed energy, we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be as easy as flipping a switch. Restaurants were understaffed, overtaxed and still trying to navigate their own reopenings.

The reality is we are facing more of a rebuilding than a reopening. Revenue from ticket sales in 2020 was down about 72% from 2019 (2019 was our strongest year to date), typical for many food tour operators. Ticket sales so far in 2021 are a bit better but nothing near 2019 levels. The international culinary experiences I host have regained momentum as well. I sold out one of my Mexico tours for December and plan to launch culinary vacations to Belize and Italy in 2022.

Last fall, our team came up with Bike n Bites, a tour that allowed us to be mostly outside, weather permitting. We leveraged new partnerships with Madison BCycle and Garver Feed Mill, and we were able to support some of our long-term partners, including Monsoon Siam and Nutkrack.

We restarted our downtown tour this summer, albeit with fewer partner restaurants and days available. But guests and clients have been understanding and flexible. As I head into my 10th year in business, I can say with certainty that I still love what I do, and this experience has made me stronger. I have realized more than ever that it is not what we have around us but who we have around us that matters most. And yes, I’ll hold onto those yoga pants just in case.

Otehlia Cassidy is the owner of Madison Eats Food Tours.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine