When Pamela Laskey decided it was time for a “mid-life change of scenery,” she also decided she wanted to own a business. She just wasn’t sure what that business would be. Then a friend took her on an impromptu tour of his favorite eating spots in Portland and Laskey had her idea. Today, Laskey’s business, Maine Foodie Tours, operates culinary tours in Portland, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor.
Laskey calls her product a “culinary education, a tasty tour” – an opportunity to visit local businesses that specialize in Maine cuisine.
“They are all Maine-owned businesses; the foods are locally grown, harvested or caught, and prepared,” she says.
While tour customers taste samples at each stop along the way, they also learn relevant history. That may include hearing about the Aroostook County potato while visiting Dean’s Sweets. Or learning about the railroad that brought winter wheat from Canada into Portland. Or, of course, information about the lobster industry. Because they are tied into their specific community, the tours differ in each of the three Maine Foodie Tours locations.
“They are all Maine-owned businesses. [The owners] educate as much as the tour guides,” Laskey says.
Laskey sees the tours as a “win-win” for both foodies and businesses alike. Foodies get information and samples, and businesses have a chance to promote their product. She says that between 30 and 35 percent of tour customers end up making purchases on the tour stops. And, unlike some food tours, Laskey compensates businesses for the samples they offer during the tour. Yes, the businesses get exposure and sales, she says, but the cost of samples can add up.
“You don’t necessarily have to have an overabundance of good food to create a good tour,” she says.
In addition to the already established businesses on the tour, she says, there are other local businesses interested in getting on board. Laskey employs nine tour guides spread among her three locations.
“It’s not work. I get up and I’m really excited to do what I do. Some days go by and all I do is work and it doesn’t seem like it because I’m having a really good time.”
Q What were your most important needs in getting started?
A My most important need was that I needed to create a career that allowed me to do things I love. That’s fundamentally what drove me to this. I had a wonderful career that paid well and let me travel the world, but I wanted to do something that I had complete ownership of. I fell in love with Portland and wanted to be involved in a community, find a way to give back. Starting the tours really allows me to do that.
Q What was there about your upbringing that gave you the courage to venture out on your own?
A Both of my parents came from large families so there was no shortage of hard work. My brother and sister and I were definitely raised to work hard. My dad is very much about being honest and ethical and my mom is very much about being thoughtful, kind and considerate. Those are great influences as a child growing up. They definitely laid the framework for how I conduct my life personally and professionally. I think that when I moved back to Maine, I was really struck by entrepreneurial spirit and I’d have to say that was influential, as well. I saw people all around me taking enormous risks. They were really acting like they were not worried about it at all. I felt like in a really supportive community that would help me along the way. So that if I build it, they will come. I’ve always been an optimist. I learned at an early age to look at the best side of things when possible and to expect a lot out of myself and for my life.
Q What do you think the advantages are of being a female entrepreneur?
A I don’t like to stereotype because I love men, too, but one thing I’ve noticed is that with other female entrepreneurs, the other business owners and people I work with, it almost seems second nature to figure out how to be supportive of one another. I start all my tours at this beautiful shop called Vervacious on Commercial Street. Because I start there, I’m allowed to tell Google. It’s the only way I can tell people how to find me because I need a physical location. [The owner] said, I’ll sell your tickets here, so there is walkup traffic. And just this week, for example, we decided to do an ad that was a little expensive. So we decided to take a picture of someone eating at a foodie tour and also showcasing all her beautiful products, and share the cost. It’s a generally supportive environment. I wouldn’t say that’s not true of men, but I work more with women. A lot of women are collaborative by nature. Running a business is another extension of that.
Q What advice would you give to an aspiring woman entrepreneur?
A No. 1, I would have to say don’t be afraid to try something and fail at it. I’ve tried many tours that didn’t work and I’ve tried towns that didn’t sell. The important thing is to step back and say, “OK, what did I learn from this? What is my takeaway? Why didn’t this work so I don’t make the same mistake again,” and then move on.
No. 2, I think it’s great to come up with your own original idea. It doesn’t have to be a big expensive idea. If you look around and see there’s an unmet need, something that ties into your own interest, try to make it your own and find that advantage you can uniquely offer. If people do that, you never have to apologize, and you never step on anyone’s toes.
No. 3, I waited until the middle of my life because I wanted to have money in bank and savings to draw on. My advice would be to save your money. It shows a lot of faith in yourself when you go to the bank and you have your own vested interest. I lived off savings for three years. I also made a ton of mistakes. I spent too much money because I didn’t know any better. Set a budget so that you can grow and also take care of yourself. I would also add that Portland is so very rich in resources to help entrepreneurs. I would encourage everyone to go to some of the free or nearly free resources. I owe a really big debt of gratitude to SCORE. They’ve been great. Also the Maine Small Business Development Centers. I’ve found a few mentors over there who have been just really helpful at literally no cost. Other resources are a little lesser known. USM has a marketing department and they like to do research projects with local startups. I had a whole semester working with a group of five marketing students who did a whole research project with me. Lastly I would say know in advance that you need to always be learning. It’s a rapidly changing world. You need to always be growing and evolving.
Q If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
A The biggest thing is that I would have started sooner. That’s the only regret my dad had – he should have started sooner. There are a lot of little missteps that I learned from. To start a tour is a sizable investment. There are a lot of parts, and a lot of people need to buy in. I’m still learning how to search engine optimize my website. I’m learning how to make my blog more integrated with my website, and how to more effectively capture fans on Facebook. It’s kind of an ongoing education. I should start budgeting so I can learn to off-load some activities. I need to be willing to pay other people to do the things that I might be good at but not great at. You want to do everything yourself. We’re Yankees, good Mainers, but at the end of the day it’s wise to take stock of what you really enjoy doing. You need to surround yourself with really great talent. You have to be able to hire effectively – I learned that out of the gate.
– Kristine Millard
Maine Foodie Tours
Portland, Kennebunkport, Bar Harbor