Like many of us, Shannon Largen was facing a professional crossroads in 2020. She had worked for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp for 16 years, training people and also running and running the Music City Greeter program.
“I love Nashville, I love the hospitality and talking to people from my favorite city,” says Largen. She assumed she would return to her job at NCVC, having been laid off in 2020 when tourism plummeted. But the longer the pandemic dragged on, the more Largen began to think about what she wanted to do next.
She called Karen-Lee Ryan, founder and then owner of the Walk Eat Nashville food tour company, to become a guide. Largen had done three Walk Eat tours over the years and knew Ryan from his hospitality work. They had similar philosophies for showing visitors and locals a more complete Nashville than some more tourism-centric offerings. Both love food, love chefs, and tell the story of how Nashville’s food scene has flourished in recent years.
At the time, Walk Eat Nashville was on hiatus. The combination of the March 2020 tornado – which closed several participating restaurants on the East Nashville tour route – and the pandemic put things on hold for more than a year and a half. Largen also learned that Ryan was considering selling the business. Although she remains one of Nashville’s greatest cheerleaders and still regularly visits her favorite chefs, Ryan had moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Largen and Ryan’s phone call turned into an opportunity.
Largen is now the owner and CEO (i.e. head of catering) of Walk Eat Nashville, the Ryan company launched in 2014. (Fun fact: the Scene was at the scene when Ryan led his first tour over seven years ago.)
Each walking tour lasts approximately three hours, with five tasting stops of approximately 20 minutes per stop. They are designed as small group experiences, with no more than 12 people in a group and the average being around six. Each visit is led by a hospitality professional or journalist, and they are not scripted. While each tour has certain highlights and themes to include, each guide brings their own experience and interests to their guests. (Full disclosure, many Scene writers have led tours for Walk Eat Nashville over the past few years, including Chris Chamberlain, Jennifer Justus, and I.)
Largen, who was raised by a single mother on a budget, credits her grandfather for igniting her passion for food. “He took us to good restaurants and on vacation,” she says. At one point, as an adult, she had a job that required her to travel 45 weeks a year, which opened her eyes to the restaurant business. She later married into a family of restaurateurs.
It is reviving local food tours, building on Ryan’s foundation of focusing on local cuisines and giving visitors the opportunity to meet the people behind the dishes. You won’t find a hot chicken stop on any of the tour lines – Largen believes people are already familiar with the dish and are likely to research it for themselves. However, many guidebooks tell the story of hot chicken when they talk about the culinary history of Nashville.
At The Farm House, which has been on the downtown food route for years, visitors come over lunch, before the official dinner restaurant opens. This gives Trey Cioccia, the chef and owner of The Farm House, a chance to speak at length to diners, telling them about his food and his hometown. He estimates that around 90% return for a full restaurant meal after being introduced on a tour.
“One of my goals with the CVC was to introduce people to neighborhoods,” explains Largen. “Nashville has so much to offer. Broadway is one of them, but we want them to explore everything we have. Tours cost $ 85, plus taxes and fees, and travel through all kinds of weather conditions (but not dangerous).
Historically, tours have attracted both locals and visitors. For locals in particular, this can be a good way to learn about all the new restaurants and the changes that have taken place over the past two years. “As locals, we often don’t play in our own backyards,” explains Largen.
Bryan Lee Weaver, executive chef and partner of Butcher & Bee, was surprised at how many locals discovered the restaurant while on a Walk Eat Nashville tour. At the start of the restaurant, he says, it was helpful to have a full and engaged table of visitors visible in the window at lunch. Diners taste the mezze portion of the Butcher & Bee menu – and yes, that includes the popular whipped feta.
While Largen has largely stuck to Ryan’s formula for success, there are some new stops on the tour. Downtown now has Assembly Food Hall, and Steam Boys and Slim & Husky’s stop at Fifth + Broadway. One of the East Nashville routes now includes Chef Sean Brock’s Joyland.
Goo Goo Chocolate Co. has undergone a makeover since its last visit, and visitors to Walk Eat Nashville were among the first to return to the revamped interactive space. “We love that Walk Eat Nashville goes through Goo Goo Chocolate Co. as part of their tours, and they do an amazing job giving the guests on their tour a culinary glimpse of Nashville,” said Beth Sachan, vice president of Nashville. sales and marketing for the century-old candy brand. “There is so much history in our history that tour guides are able to share in such a fun and engaging way that often turns their guests into Goo Goo enthusiasts.”
For the beloved Ryan – who was editor at Tennessee before launching Walk Eat, it was difficult to sell the business she had built from scratch. But it was less so by finding a buyer who shares his sensibilities about Nashville. Seeing that the restaurants and the guides want to continue with Largen at the helm has been “the heartwarming part,” says Ryan. “It has been amazing to see the business in her extremely capable hands, and I am so happy to see her rejuvenated. This made the transition seamless.
Ryan will remain in an advisory role for the next six months, a safety net for which Largen says she is grateful.
Before the pandemic, Walk Eat offered several tours to East Nashville, downtown and Midtown. For now, Midtown routes are on hold. Book tours in advance online at walkeatnashville.com. Currently, public tours take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Private tours are available.