By Donna Cornelius
Annie Reynolds had just paid for a business license for her fledgling company and, like many new business owners, was wondering if she’d done the right thing.
But on her way home, she got a text from a friend that seemed to confirm she’d picked the right time to start Birmingham Taste Tours.
The text said Highlands Bar and Grill had won the James Beard Foundation Award for America’s best restaurant and gave Reynolds assurance that the already-hot Birmingham food scene was about to sizzle even more.
“My thought was that a food tour in Birmingham was going to happen,” Reynolds said. “I wanted to be the first to do it and to make it representative of our city.”
Birmingham Taste Tours offers three-hour walking tours focusing on downtown Birmingham’s food, drink and history. Reynolds started her company last month after about six months of research.
The Louisiana native originally set out to be a teacher but said food has always been important to her.
“I grew up in the western part of Louisiana – right on the line of Cajun country and country-country,” she said. “My mom made everything from scratch. We lived around a lot of fields, and farmers would bring us what they grew. We cooked seasonally without knowing it.”
She said she also learned childhood lessons about hospitality.
“When someone came over, you cooked them a meal,” she said.
Her first job in food was at Lea’s Lunchroom in Lecompte, Louisiana.
“They were famous for not having a menu,” Reynolds said. “They cooked whatever the farmers brought, and we would memorize what we were serving that day. Again, it was more about hospitality. Even if you didn’t like the vegetables that day, you would stay for the conversation.”
Reynolds met her husband, Chris, when both had catering jobs as students at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She majored in elementary education.
“I also was in the military,” she said. “I was waiting tables in college, and a recruiter who was a customer did his job really well. I joined the National Guard. I did that in college through when we had our first child.”
Chris Reynolds’ job brought the family from New Orleans to Hoover about 10 years ago. Annie and Chris have four sons: Caleb, 12; twins Jacob and Brennan, 7; and Andrew, who’s 3. She worked for a short time in the mothers’ day out program at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in Homewood.
She said the long teacher certification process required by the state and the birth of her twins put her teaching plans on hold.
“I did a lot of volunteer work and worked with a friend at her nonprofit,” Reynolds said. “And I became that person that people would text and say, ‘Where should we eat?’
“A friend asked me if we had food tours in Birmingham. I told her no – I thought those were only in bigger cities. She had just done a food tour Chattanooga. I thought, if Chattanooga can have one, we could here in Birmingham. I researched and realized how big food tours are in other cities like Chicago, Charleston, Atlanta and Nashville.”
She studied economic reports for Birmingham’s food industry and went on food tours in other cities. If she liked a particular tour, she’d get in touch with the owner afterward and ask for advice.
“Everyone was very friendly and helpful,” she said. “I learned that tours need to be walkable and consistent. So I have tours every Thursday and Saturday, rain or shine.”
Her experiences and the information she’d gathered spurred her to move forward with her business plan.
“I told my neighbors, I’m going to open a food tour business,” Reynolds said. “With teaching, I kept hitting all these roadblocks. But with this, all the doors seemed to open.”
Reynolds books tours through her website, www.bhamtastetours.com. Each tour is limited to 12 people, although she can accommodate larger groups through special arrangements. The tours are geared for both locals and visitors, including out-of-towners who are in Birmingham for an organization’s meeting or corporate event.
When you book a tour, you receive an email telling you where to meet and where to park. You won’t know all the stops on the tours – that’s a surprise – but you can get an idea of the places you might visit by reading the list of the company’s restaurant partners on the website.
“Each restaurant has to be locally owned and operated,” Reynolds said. “If it has more than one location, it has to have started in Birmingham. I love chef-owned restaurants.”
She said one of the “must-have” restaurants on her list when she started out was Café Dupont, the 20th Street North bistro where chef Chris Dupont focuses on regional ingredients with a modern Southern spin.
“I felt like I had to get his blessing, and he’s been in my corner since day one,” Reynolds said.
Other restaurants that came on board include Bistro 218, Chocolata, EastWest Kitchen and Bar, El Barrio, The Essential, Harvest Restaurant and Bar at the Redmont Hotel, John’s City Diner, Roots & Revelry, The Standard at the Pizitz Food Hall, The Wine Loft, and The Yard at the Elyton Hotel.
“We’re adding restaurants all the time,” Reynolds said.
She prepped for her role as tour guide by taking friends and neighbors on practice tours over the summer. She also got in touch with REV Birmingham, an economic development organization.
“I reached out to REV to tell them about my business and ask for advice,” Reynolds said. “They had me meet with James Little to talk about Birmingham Restaurant Week.”
Little is the REV district manager and BRW founder.
“We ended up doing a Restaurant Week bike tour with Zyp bikes,” she said. “We oversold the tickets and ended up with my largest group so far.”
Reynolds hopped on a bike herself to lead the tour. Stops included Slice Pizza and Brewhouse, Blueprint on 3rd and Whistling Table, where she said chef and owner Mac Russell told some great stories.
Story-telling is a fun part of Birmingham Taste Tours – something Reynolds discovered when she took food tours in other cities.
“I love food, but I also love sitting with people and hearing their stories,” she said. “You make all these new friends and learn from them as well as the tour guide.”
Reynolds gathers information about each restaurant on her tours and throws in some fun food facts.
“There’s a South vs. North controversy about where chicken and waffles originated,” she said. “I dispel the notion that it started in the North. And when we have okra at John’s City Diner and Café Dupont, I talk about how okra was used during Civil War times.”
Reynolds invites chefs to talk to her groups and has found that many have a connection to the city’s most celebrated chef.
“We’re always doing ‘several degrees of Frank Stitt,’” she said, laughing.
While tours now are downtown, Reynolds wants to expand her business to other parts of the city and said she’ll eventually hire other guides as her company grows. But she wants to stick to areas that are foot traffic-friendly.
“Walking is important,” she said. “If you get in a car, you don’t get the blueprint of the city.”
For more information or to book a tour, visit bhamtastetours.com.