PORTLAND WOMAN GOES ON AN ENTREPRENEURIAL ADVENTURE IN THE FOOD TOUR BUSINESS
Portland by Mouth is owned and operated by Sherri Brown. Born and raised in New York, her love affair with for food and specifically vegetables started before she could talk! At 2 years old, she was in the kitchen, on a chair, scarily with a knife, cutting vegetables and helping her mom cook dinner.
As she matured, her skills and interest in food matured and expanded as well. She has spent her lifetime immersed in the kitchen, reading and studying cookbooks, gardening, landscaping, wild crafting, fermenting, practicing permaculture and herbalism, traveling and checking out restaurants of all kinds
Her true appreciation for fresh ingredients and a healthy lifestyle did not flourish until she moved out West in the mid 1990’s. The abundance of fresh and local ingredients that the Pacific Northwest is blessed with serve as the inspiration for a delicious beyond belief life.
Sherri spent the first 20 years of her Oregon life in Eugene, a town of 150,000 located at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in environmental science and biology. She spent years as an event planner, bringing authors to Eugene to speak, organizing travel adventures to Costa Rica, and putting on herbal conferences. Her work has always been very hands on, as well as having a focus on relating well to people and creating experiences.
In 2017, Sherri relocated to Portland and was ready to try something new. Brainstorming one evening with a friend about her interests and talents, she decided to start a food tour business. It was simply the perfect way to combine her love of different cuisines, support local restaurateurs, share food in a community setting, and intersect with others who love to travel.
The name Portland by Mouth had a nice ring to it, and so, in 2018, the business was born. Sherri started out by offering Experiences on Airbnb, and by 2019, she had built a website, which has allowed her more freedom with her offerings and allowed for a broader base of customers.
The main challenge in the first year was not having a high ranking on Google. Based on her experiences Sherri is positive that the best place to hide any deep, dark secret is on page 2 of Google. Well, Portland by Mouth took a year to even get listed on page 5 of Google. This meant that paid Google ads, and third-party aggregator sites were the source of most bookings. Which essentially translated to a huge portion of the gross income going to advertising and third parties. However, this obviously was all a step in the right direction, since each tour given was an opportunity to hone in the tours and the relationships with the restaurants. And slowly, reviews rolled in from satisfied guests. Which is ultimately the foundation of a stellar reputation.
Unfortunately, Sherri’s web page developer steered her to use Woo Commerce. While Woo Commerce is good for many forms of e-commerce, it is not appropriate for a bookings-based business. It was VERY inefficient and communications with customers were not able to be automated. The first order of business in year two was to switch to a booking system. Sherri says that if she could offer any advice to newbies contemplating a tour business, it would be to find a booking platform that meets your needs before you get started – and get on board with them.
The pandemic was obviously an unforeseen bump in the road. Particularly since Oregon had some of the most restrictive pandemic measures in the country. Restaurants, food tours and the tourism industry were turned on their heads. Portland by Mouth was completely shut down from March-August of 2020.
In the fall of 2020 Sherri pivoted and reopened one tour as outdoor dining only. Some of the spots were only offering to-go, which was not ideal. Guests enjoy being served food and drink on plates in individual portion sizes. But most guests were thrilled just to be engaging with the world again, even if it was in a restricted and redefined fashion.
Building relationships with the restaurants is an ongoing process. Mainly because the restaurant industry is in a constant state of flux and so is any given restaurant. This is the nature of the business, although the pandemic closures amplified the situation.
It was sad to see some fabulous restaurants shut their doors – both places on the tours and beyond. Every time one business Portland by Mouth patronized closed, Sherri had to hustle to find another one that could fill the void. And it takes more than that the restaurant serves tasty food. Their opening days and hours work must work for the tour; their location should fit into the walking route; the cuisine should complement other offerings on the tour; and the owner or manager should be interested in being featured on the tour.
Many restaurants have owners who are not there every day, or perhaps they pop in and out on a regular basis. The range of managerial styles varies greatly, as does the customer service offered to patrons. It is not uncommon to build rapport with an employee, and exchange a first name greeting and smile – and they know the tour’s order before it is ever made. And then, one day, they are no longer there, and the whole process starts again with their replacement. Sherri emphasizes that this aspect of the business comes with the territory. Managing relationships is an ongoing work in progress.
Portland by Mouth really took the pandemic as an opportunity to make a name for themselves amongst the handful of Portland food tour companies. Some of the other ones were completely shut down until further notice. In the summer of 2020, Sherri adapted the Vibrant Kerns Hood tour to be outdoor dining only. That winter, she reorganized the Brunch on Mississippi tour and unrolled it in the spring of 2021, also as an outdoor dining experience (or mostly).
The winter of 2020 was the year Sherri cracked the SEO nut. A lot of the learning happened by researching online, trial and error, and figuring things out on her own. Some of the things seemed so obvious once she finally discovered them. Simple tricks to make Google take notice!
It was absolutely thrilling to have finally reached page 1 of Google. And even more thrilling to have made it onto Google Maps listings, which appear above the organic search.
In addition to her own research Sherri has found the Facebook group Tourpreneur to be immensely helpful for connecting with colleagues from around the world, and picking their brains. There are many excellent questions and observations that are made. As well as podcasts and articles made available to members. Drawing from the collective wisdom of others and offering insight where applicable has been serving the business and perhaps is a step between figuring it all out on one’s own and hiring a professional consultant.
The combination of people returning to travel with a vengeance and showing up at the top of organic searches set the stage for an extremely busy 2021 season.
The reality is that Sherri could have and perhaps should have hired a guide along the way. Other tour companies with similar offerings (number and frequency of tours) have multiple tour guides as part of the team. Yet, the pandemic cloud looming overhead and its accompanying uncertainty is now a part of the business environment.
How long will the unleashing of pent-up demand last? Will another Covid surge cause another shutdown? Is inflation going to have an effect on how many people come to Portland and how many want to take food tours? What about when establishments are unexpectedly closed for the day, and improvisation is the name of the game? Would a new guide be able to roll with the punches? And so on and so forth.
At the beginning of the 2022 season, Sherri made a commitment to run all the tours herself (and all the aspects of the business for that matter) for the season and re-evaluate in the autumn. This includes deciding how many guides to hire and for what tours. Going hand in hand with the hiring decision is researching how to be an excellent boss. Which it is fair to say, will be yet another learning curve. And an exciting one at that.
Going forward one of the most interesting business opportunities is offering custom tours. Already, all sorts of groups have approached Portland by Mouth, with the hope that they can co-create the perfect experience for the occasion.
There are many examples. For instance, one private party (not business related) wanted an intimate experience with their family to celebrate their daughter’s college graduation. Another example is when a couple wanted an informal way for their parents to meet one another.
A really fun private tour was with a class trip of 16 junior high school students coming from the Oregon Coast. They had a segment in school where they learned about different cultures and their cuisines. And the finale involved coming to Portland, the big city, to sample different cuisines while checking out the quirky shops in the historic Mississippi district.
The most common custom tour is for a business that would like to offer a team building event, or simply a fun event to balance out the work component of their gathering. Sometimes this plays out to be a more formal affair with some upscale dinner spots on the docket. And other times, the group prefers a more casual atmosphere, trading in an urban winery for an extra stop at a food cart pod.
The custom tours can take a large investment of time, although they often end up being more profitable, since the guest count is frequently higher than an average public tour.
The next big steps for 2023 are definitely hiring a guide or two, learning how to market customized tours and learning about how to create engaging social media content.
Sherri loves to curate experiences for people and understands that a fabulous experience while traveling can help create wonderful and lifelong memories. She still contends that a Portland by Mouth food tour is THE yummiest way to experience Portland.