2018 Nominee Four: Canton Food Tours

When Barb Abbott talks people listen … and eat. As the founder, visionary and creative light behind Canton Food Tours, Barb has turned the dinner hour into story time for thousands of Canton visitors and residents, alike.

It started with a girls adventure in Arizona. Barb Abbott was a young mother on holiday with some of her closest cousins. One night in Scottsdale, they went on a Food Tour, following a guide who filled the night with stories as they moved from restaurant to restaurant through Old Town. Fascinated, Barb talked to the guide while the others were eating. Two years later, she brought the food tour concept to her adopted hometown of Canton, Ohio. What happened during those two years is the real story of how one woman’s curious nature turned into an entrepreneurial success.

Having spotted a good idea she set about developing her own vision for Canton-area food tours. Her vision was a natural extension of her college biology studies and former career as a State Park naturalist. Back then she walked people through the forest trails and wildflower meadows of Quail Hollow State Park telling stories about nature. Canton Food Tours brought her storytelling talents from dirt paths to brick streets. It also allowed her to pursue her new love affair with Canton where she already volunteered with the Canton Symphony and National First Ladies Historic Site. Her new business made her one of downtown Canton’s leading lights.

To prepare, she learned everything she could about Canton history, often having experts in various fields walk her through downtown to better explain what she saw. She wanted the educational experience to be fun, interactive, and meaningful for both local and out-of-town attendees. She visited similar operations in Columbus and also returned to Arizona two more times. To shore up her business knowledge, she took a business course offered by SCORE.

Then she began introducing herself to leading local restaurateurs and chefs, business owners, and museum CEOs to share her vision. Most were initially skeptical, but became supportive. On Sundays (when no one was downtown and she had the city to herself) she began developing different routes, pulling together the stories she would tell and the restaurants she would visit. She noted which streets were easier to cross, where the sun would shine in visitors eyes when she stopped, which awnings to duck under during rain.

She also worried people wouldn’t pay to hear her stories. Then she remembered the words of Henry Timken she’d read in one of a six volume set on Stark County history given to her by friend Tim Belden. “If you have a good idea, see it through to the finish.” It was time to get going.

She quickly found a small storefront on Market Ave. and turned it into her office. She developed a web site and pamphlet to scatter around town. After two years of study and planning, Canton Food Tours led its first tour.

Six years later, Barb and other Canton Food Tour Guides have brought Canton and its history to life for group sizes from 2 to 75 people (average group size is 10). Her walking tours begin at the McKinley Grand Hotel and stop at four to five restaurants where chefs prepare small plates especially for her group, and tell the story behind their establishment. It’s a different way to eat. A different way to see Canton. A different way to learn about a city more remarkable than many people think.

Today, Barb Abbott has already expanded to Wooster and has other ideas on the horizon. While she started out to see an idea to a finish, she is now starting to realize an entrepreneurial business often has no finish line in sight.