Knoxville is known for a lot of things, but its up-and-coming food industry might not be the first to come to mind.
Paula Johnson, creator of the Knoxville Food Tours, has led over 500 Food Tours with over 5,000 guests since 2010.
Each week, Johnson takes people on tours throughout downtown Knoxville and teaches them the history of Knoxville, while taking them to different restaurants.
“We wanted to have an event that showcases the city and the food of the city, because I think that’s how a lot of people learn about the culture,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of bigger cities have these tours, so I figured we should too.”
People can choose to take a tour in the morning, afternoon or evening, as well as choosing between two different tours entirely, with different transportation and location.
There are walking tours that take place in downtown Knoxville, where Johnson does a narration of the history of the city and talks about the buildings and architecture. Then, there is a driving tour that takes place in the historic downtown area in the Bearden district.
During the tour, the groups make stops at different restaurants. At each stop, guests are able to taste a sample of the food and ask questions. The tours are interactive and generally last about two and a half hours.
People are also able to schedule a private or custom tour. This can be useful for local clubs or businesses.
Aside from tourists, the tour also takes a lot of UT students and their parents when they come to visit. This gives families something to do while they are in Knoxville and a chance to see the city.
“I started this business when all the restorations in Knoxville happened,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of locals who come on tours because they haven’t been downtown in a while, so that’s fun.”
The restaurants that the tour makes stops at changes periodically. Additionally, Johnson has about 15-20 different partners that help out, including Visit Knoxville, Bistro at the Bijou, Tupelo Honey Café, The Melting Pot and the Blue Slip Winery.
As an East Tennessee native, Johnson has made herself an expert on Knoxville history and its different hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Aside from hosting tours, she also speaks at different engagements for neighborhood associations and judges local cooking competitions.
Outside of the culinary world, Johnson has been active in preserving the history of Knoxville as a member of the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Candoro Arts & Heritage Center and the Museum of Appalachia. She has also been a member of the Knoxville Symphony League and founded the TN Marble Society, dedicated to educating the public about the history and significance of the Tennessee Marble Industry in the development of Knoxville.
Laney Palmieri, director of Visitor Services for Knoxville, has worked with Johnson and the Knoxville Food Tours for years.
“I think having a food tour is a great way to showcase local spots in Knoxville,” Palmieri said. “Any chance you can get people to do more than they planned to do, only opens an opportunity for them to not only discover more about our wonderful Knoxville but usually makes them crave more.”
Although Palmieri has never personally been on one of Johnson’s tours, many of her staff members have been on at least one.
“They all really enjoyed learning more about the various restaurants showcased on the tour, along with other stories given on the tour,” Palmieri said.
If you are interested in learning more about Knoxville's history and its up and coming food industry, go to knoxvillefoodtours.com to sign up for a tour.