In her management communications course at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Lesley Stracks-Mullem (MBA ’08) regularly tantalized classmates by choosing local barbecue restaurants as a public-speaking topic. Based on her palate-pleasing experiences, she discussed what the restaurants offered and how the barbecues differed.
Stracks-Mullem has parlayed her passion for food into a foodie’s fantasy with the new business she co-owns, Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, based in Durham.
Barbecue, sweet tea and other Southern staples at first foreign to Chicago native Stracks-Mullem became fast friends with her taste buds. That’s how she earned what she calls a minor in barbecue while at UNC Kenan-Flagler. As the focus of a Taste Carolina specialty tour, barbecue now is major in Stracks-Mullem’s life.
The business offers weekend walking tours of restaurants and food shops in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh where groups sample food and talk with chefs and owners. “It’s a great way to experience an area,” Stracks-Mullem says. “And you get to burn off a little bit of what you eat.”
One restaurant might offer a steak quesadilla while another serves wine and cheese and another ladles soup. Each tour includes chocolate, cupcakes, beer and wine. From upscale restaurants to mom and pop stores and delis, the focus is on establishments that use local produce or preserve North Carolina’s food traditions.
“Our mission is twofold, to highlight restaurants in the best possible way and to provide people with a lovely way to spend an afternoon or evening,” Stracks-Mullem says.
Taste Carolina’s smorgasbord includes corporate walking tours, tours with local beers and tastings at a farmers’ market and tours that focus on chocolate and Mexican food stands.
Stracks-Mullem leads tours, keeps the books and maintains relationships with chefs, restaurant owners and tourism groups. She and business partner Joe Philipose plan to expand Taste Carolina to Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington.
“It’s a perfect job for me. I love to be out and about, and I love to do a little bit of everything. I always knew I wanted to own my own business. I get a chance to meet new people all the time, and that’s a lot of fun. And I love good, local food,” Stracks-Mullem, 35, says.
Her experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler helped her get started. With classes in entrepreneurship, sustainable enterprise, finance, marketing and writing a business plan, “It was a well-rounded education and gave me the confidence to get into business,” Stracks-Mullem says. “Everyone around me was incredibly bright, helpful and supportive. It’s a great environment to learn in.”
Her background is in recreation management, but Stracks-Mullem always has enjoyed taking friends and family to independent restaurants. It was an experience with her husband and brother-in-law in Durham that gave her the idea for a food tour business: she created an appetizer and wine tour for them one day and a whirlwind visit to seven barbecue restaurants the next day.
After she earned an undergraduate degree from William & Mary, Stracks-Mullem dreamed of opening a sandwich shop. That didn’t happen, but she found a savory alternative. “I’ve definitely turned a passion into a business, and that’s very gratifying,” she says.