Editor's note: This is the first column in a new series highlighting Austin entrepreneurs called Dreamers & Doers. Each month, we'll tell the story behind a popular Austin businesses, reveal their inspiration, and chronicle their journey from dreamer to doer.
The dream of leaving corporate life behind to do something that both fulfills you and is also wildly successful is a kind of cultural myth, usually the subject of wistful talks over too much wine, a dream that doesn’t exist in reality.
Andy Potter skipped right over the dreaming part and got straight to the doing part when he founded Austin Eats Food Tours.
The archetypal corporate existence includes a sea of cubicles, triple-stacked meetings, and staying a step ahead of the next layoff. And for Potter, it’s a mostly apt description of his former professional life. By 2010, he had a decade at Dell and John Deere under his belt, had built a solid career in supply chain management, and had no plans to uproot his life.
But then a Vampire Weekend concert changed everything.
As a surprise, he whisked his wife, Lindsey, away to Vampire Weekend’s final tour date in Los Angeles. During their vacation, they indulged in a highly rated L.A. food tour. The pair left feeling hungry and unsatisfied — and with a nagging sense that they could have done it better.
Weeks later, over a couple of beers at the former Doc’s Motorworks on South Congress Avenue, they re-visited that experience and sketched out a business plan on the back of a napkin.
Together, they prototyped what would become the company's South Congress Food Tour in January of 2011, taking friends and family on test runs to iron out kinks. Potter was still full time at Dell, working during the day and spending his off-time figuring out how to build relationships with local businesses, satisfy customers, and create remarkable experiences.
"At first I was a little too corporate, wanting to put every single detail in contracts," he laughs. "I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t going to fly. I had to be cool with a handshake.”
In the beginning, the couple didn’t have kids and spent most of their weekends hosting tours. It was during one of these tours that a customer casually suggested a corporate outing. Potter was taken aback. “I hadn't even considered corporate events," he says. "One of my customers worked at Facebook and asked if I’d do a weekday tour for her team. I took the day off from my Dell job, led the private event, and that was when things really took off.”
By October 2011, he had left his corporate job for this new entrepreneurial life.
Today, most of their business comes from private events and corporate tours with companies like Apple, Facebook, IBM and, yes, Dell. The appeal for corporate partners, Potter says, “is that food and drink are unforced team building."
"There are no nametags, no trust fall ... camaraderie happens naturally," Potter explains. "They also love us because we’ll customize tours to their needs. We just [hosted] 115 people from Procter & Gamble [that] ended with a private Tje Austin concert at Lustre Pearl.”
Potter says that about 65 percent of people going on his tours live in the Austin area and 40 percent is repeat business, something that Potter partially attributes to keeping the lineups fresh, and bringing on a constant stream of new partners and experiences. "For example, we started working with Suerte before they were open," Potter says. "We’ve also retired the original SoCo tour and added a Luxe Brunch Food Tour.”
The company has also benefited from Austin transplants that want to explore the city. “This is an easy way to do that,” he notes. “It's a great date night and something to do with friends and family that you don’t have to plan.”
But the real secret, he says, is his tour hosts. “We hire people with personality, who know the Austin scene, and often, who are in the service industry already," says Potter. “They’re kind of my street team, often bringing me new restaurants and options before anyone else knows about them.”
Potter estimates that Austin Eats Food Tours has put over $2.5 million into the local economy and says the tour spends about $1,000 a day at local restaurants, food trucks, and breweries.
They also donate hundreds of gift cards each year to nonprofits raising money. “We’ve donated about 850 tours in 2018. It’s important to us to give back as much as we can.”
As for the future, there are a world of possibilities. “Word of mouth is an incredible thing and responsible for so much of our business. If we keep innovating and creating amazing experiences, people will keep sharing us," he says. "But we never want to grow so fast that we lose the heart of why we do this — that is showing off the city that we love and the businesses that make it special.”