When you think of the dining boom in Milwaukee over the past decade or so, it’s easy to forget the unexpected side benefits that have accompanied it, like the success of television’s "Milwaukee Foodie" or the "Edible Milwaukee" magazine.
Or, especially, the blockbuster success of Milwaukee Food Tours, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.
We first met Milwaukee Food Tours when founder Theresa Nemetz took us on a tour of Brady Street in early 2008. At that time, she was working a day job at Marquette University and running tours on the side.
Since then, the business has gone from one person’s hobby to a full-time family operation that works with more than two dozen people to offer a wide variety of services, some now outside Milwaukee and even Wisconsin.
We caught up with Nemetz to ask about how the dining boom led to a massive change in her life and the realization of a dream.
OnMilwaukee: Can you tell me how things have changed in these 10 years?
Theresa Nemetz: As we've grown, we moved from being a weekend hobby to a year-round, full-time operation. In our first year of operation, I personally led all of our tours; today we employ 25 tour guides and bus drivers that each love to showcase Milwaukee through our tours to locals and visitors alike.
Besides our standard tour routes such as our Bloody Mary Brunch or our Pizza Bus tour, we also create many custom tour itineraries for team outings and family celebrations. For example, we are hosting a custom pizza and custard tour for a Bat Mitzvah celebration later this month, and we are currently planning a 50th wedding anniversary tour for a couple in which we'll be helping them to share all of their old favorite spots – think Milky-Way, Fox Bay Theatre and the Marc's Big Boy Burger – with their children and grandchildren.
Did you expect it to last 10 years? Did you expect that you'd expand to the extent you have?
When we started, we truly believed it was a fun little hobby we'd do once a month, so absolutely did not expect the success that we've built Milwaukee Food & City Tours into today. One of the reasons for our expansion has consistently been because we listened to our tour attendees, who return time and time again for more tours.
We've always listened to feedback, and developed new tour routes per their request as a result. For example, our new Tacos & Tequila tour is a direct result of requests from repeat customers interested in discovering hidden gems within the Latino community of Milwaukee.
Has the dining boom in Milwaukee really fueled the growth?
The dining boom has helped fuel our growth, but we oftentimes are showcasing traditional locations that have been in Milwaukee for generations, or hidden gems around town. For example, on our Craft Breweries & Cocktails tour, we are visiting small breweries and meeting with the owners for personal tours – not going to breweries with existing tours in place.
More than the dining boom, though, we've seen a significant influx of visitors coming to play in Milwaukee on the weekends, as well as young professionals relocating their families to Milwaukee. This has helped to fuel our growth, as well as the overall growth of tourism in Milwaukee.
Do you own buses or do you rent them?
Both! We currently own three tour buses – they are our signature bright green and can't be missed on the road – and rent additional buses for groups of varying sizes. Our buses are available for private tours as well as wedding and bachelorette and bachelor outings. We'll be adding more buses to our fleet as we continue to grow and see increased demand.
Do you see growth continuing as it's been going or is there a point at which you'd want to plateau and say, "we're here for now"?
Locally, we are focused on our current listing of tours, as well as creating custom itineraries for private groups. Looking ahead, our focus is already shifting to inviting Milwaukeeans to travel with us on unique, food-focused trips. This year we are offering daytrips to Chicago's Chinatown, Hamburger Fest & Lambeau Field, Chicago's Eataly and a weekend trip we've dubbed "The Real Housewives of Amish Country," complete with buggy rides and an Amish wedding feast.
We're also beginning to offer culinary vacations. This August we'll be traveling to Poland for a nine-day adventure filled with cooking classes, vodka tastings and a visit to the Pierogi Festival in Krakow, Poland. Next year we'll be offering other day trips, along with a trip to Italy to "deconstruct the pizza" with tours at local tomato farms, flour mills, wineries, cheese factories and a visit to the Naples Pizza Festival in honor of the birthplace of the margherita pizza.
Tell us about the anniversary and how you’re celebrating.
Our 10th anniversary was on May 10. On that day, we hosted a group of mothers and daughters from Chicago on our original Brady Street tour route. Many of them had worked at Kopp's Custard in the years prior to moving to Chicago. Through that tour, we discovered that guests wanted to rediscover the Milwaukee that they used to know, and have a delicious time doing it! We'll be hosting several 10th anniversary celebrations and promotions.
On Wednesday, May 24, we'll be giving away Italian cookies at Sciortino's Bakery from 7 to 9 a.m. Sciortino's Bakery has been on our Brady Street tour since the beginning of Milwaukee Food & City Tours, and we'll be giving away Italian cookies to anyone that stops by in celebration of our 10th anniversary.
For our repeat tour attendees who have been on two or more tours, we'll also be hosting a special pizza giveaway at Zaffiro's Pizza, another stop since the beginning of Milwaukee Food & City Tours.
We also are offering a special discount code to the general public to check out Milwaukee Food & City Tours. Food tour tickets can be purchased at milwaukeefoodtours.com or sightseeing tour tickets can be purchased at milwaukeecitytours.com – simply use discount code 10YEARS to receive $5 off each ticket. This offer is valid for any public tour date offered in 2017, but discount code must be redeemed by June 15.
Finally, we'll be hosting online ticket giveaways via Facebook throughout the month at facebook.com/mkefoodtour.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.