Delicious Tours & Activities

Theresa Nemetz used the pandemic as a pivot point to scale her food tour business to unprecedented new heights

When I first interviewed Theresa Nemetz in 2016, she already had her eye on bigger and better things. The owner of Milwaukee Food & City Tours got the idea for her business while on a food tour in New York City. She came home from that trip and started sketching out what a Milwaukee food tour business would look like. By the time I caught up with her, she was poised to expand her business by offering pizza tours of Italy.

That entrepreneurial spirit came in handy when COVID-19 shut down the travel industry. “In some crazy way, the pandemic has just been an amazing pivot point and opportunity for us,” says Nemetz.

As her tour business shut down, Theresa saw other tour operators around the globe selling locally sourced culinary-themed gift baskets and immediately jumped on the opportunity. “When we started, it was about featuring Milwaukee food vendors but now my vision is to take that national. We started offering advent calendars and we did a Delicious Illinois advent calendar, a Delicious Ohio advent calendar, Delicious Minnesota and Delicious Michigan,” Nemetz said.

“I love Christmas and to be able to be out there and bringing so much revenue to all these local food producers in each community has been beautiful,” Nemetz said. Eyeing the future, Nemetz has plans to roll out a Route 66 box and a mighty Mississippi River box.

Midwest Girl’s Strategic Growth

As Chicago gradually reopened to tourism, Nemetz strategically acquired two tour/DMC companies in the Windy City. As the current business owners were scaling back or retiring, “It has given us a chance to move into new markets,” said Nemetz.

At the same time, Nemetz admits she’s “not a Chicago girl,” but she’s surrounded herself with people that know Chicago. “I would have never gone into that city without having a great base of people. I’ve relied on the individuals that work for the companies, the individuals that started those companies to still be my partner and being able to open doors for us.”

As to the complexities of running a tour business in a new city, Nemetz said, “I don’t actually need to know exactly where everything is, but I do need to be able to sell it and I need to be out there networking. And you know, I’m really kind of look at myself now as the Midwest girl as I’m expanding.”

At the end of the day, Theresa Nemetz says it’s all about delicious. “Whether it’s us sending you a gift box, or you getting off a cruise ship, or you showing up on a corner and doing one of our food tours, it‘s about delicious.”

Capitalizing on Group Business

Whereas most tour and activity companies focus on booking individual tourists, Nemetz has carved out a strong niche in the group sector. “You can go on to any of our websites at any time and you can book a tour and meet us on a street corner, and we take you out on a great tour. But where we’ve seen a huge increase in demand is on the corporate side with the private tours.” Approximately 75% of the company’s business comes via pre-formed groups.

“We’re starting to see corporate groups where people are calling and saying, you know what, we have not traveled for three years and my boss said we need to get everyone together,” she added.

While her company is enjoying the fruits of their labor, Nemetz attests that it takes years to cultivate group business. “I think that one thing that really set us on the right path in developing what we wanted to offer to groups was mentorship. We have so many great strong mentors that have really taught me about group travel.”

As to how the firm develops group business, it’s a lot of networking, travel shows and building relationships. “Someone asked me by traveling to these travel shows, do I see the value? Do I book something? That’s really hard for me to answer because yes, I booked tours at these shows, but that’s actually not what the value is. The value is over the course of 10 years, who have I met and how have those individuals helped me to be able to open doors. Sometimes the long game is the way to success.

There are some people that we have talked to for literally five and six years and now they are just coming to us and having us plan their itineraries.”

Whereas most tour and activity companies focus on booking individual tourists, Theresa Nemetz has carved out a strong niche in the group sector.

Doing Great on the Great Lakes

Great Lakes cruising is flourishing with lines like American Queen and Viking joining foreign carriers by offering a variety of summer itineraries across the Great Lakes of North America. Seeing this opportunity to be involved in the cruising industry, Nemetz understood the Milwaukee and Chicago markets, but didn’t know a lot about cruising initiatives on the Great Lakes. “I realized that there are so many individuals that want to cruise on the Great Lakes, to see this beautiful natural beauty in America that they may not have ever thought to go to. We’re starting to see a huge influx of cruises that are building ships to come onto the Great Lakes and have a whole entire summer season here.”

Nemetz started talking to cruise lines and offered to help build the infrastructure necessary to run day tours in various points. That bet has paid off as her new firm, Great Lakes Shore Excursions hired 150 people this spring to facilitate tours in Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, Bayfield, Detroit, Cleveland, Alpena, Muskegon and Sturgeon Bay.

The process hasn’t entirely been smooth sailing. She found that while they could find people who are passionate about their community, they had no previous knowledge of how to lead a tour. “We’ve had to go in and teach them. We’re building out scripts, we’re working with local historians and we’re teaching them how to lead these tours. Because a cruise ship pulls up to your dock with 400 people, they need 20 to 30 tour guides that morning to go and take people out.”

Community-Based Tourism

Nemetz points out that it’s important for the local community to embrace tourism. “We don’t want anyone to be upset that a cruise ship is coming to town. We want to be in the community meeting with the mayors, meeting with those Chambers of Commerce and asking them ‘what do you want to show off?’ So then when they come to, you know, to go and see the Apostle Islands, for example, and to go into Duluth and they go kayaking, you know these ships on the Great Lakes, they’re not a traditional cruise ship.

And when I’m seeing passengers coming off the Great Lakes cruises and I’m asking them what they think, they tell me they never knew this existed in the United States. They have traveled their whole lives all around the world and it was right here in their backyard.”

The Next Frontier

As the Great Lakes cruise business is expanding, so has the future of in-destination tours in previously underserved areas. By 2024, Nemetz would like to see full-fledged tour companies in multiple cities. Nemetz cites examples like Mackinac Island where they are launching the first fudge tasting tour on the island.

As with any scaling business the demands of an owner-operator are tremendous. “Really, my biggest goal right now is elevating to a place where I have a team of direct reports that I can really trust, they can do things well and be able to take the company to the next level. Because as much as I want to take things to the next level, I can’t do it by myself.”

Nemetz is building out a team of leaders within the food tour business and asking them to manage those cities. “They know what is coming is we are going to be expanding into those other cities.”

At the end of the day, Nemetz says it’s all about delicious. “Whether it’s us sending you a gift box, or you getting off a cruise ship, or you showing up on a corner and doing one of our food tours, it‘s about delicious.”

Delicious indeed.

Listen to the entire interview with Theresa Nemetz at

By Jeff Gayduk