By Cathy Shouse
If the Indiana Foodways Alliance had written the story of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy would have followed a culinary trail instead of the yellow brick road. Since 2007 the Alliance has promoted restaurant trails winding throughout the state that are devoted to certain foods. The organization lists restaurants that serve a specific type of food, lines them up on the map by location, and encourages people to follow the trail, eating their way along. Membership requires restaurants to be locally-owned, and approved through assessments that confirm a level of quality.
Whether pies, tenderloins or ice cream are your go-to food, or something else, there is likely a trail for it. Following a food trail is a fun way to discover new-to-you establishments, taste some of the most scrumptious food and drinks around, and get motivated to explore different communities. Currently, more than 220 member food–and beverage–places in Indiana have been divided into 19 trails.
The Hoosier Pie Trail, Tenderloin Trail, and Sweet Temptations Trail are most popular, and several have won awards. In 2018 the Tenderloin Trail was ranked 7th in “10 Best Food & Drink Trails in America” by PopSugar. USA Today’s “Best Food Trails in America” ranked the Hoosier Pie Trail 4th place in 2015 (beating out Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail), among many other awards the trails have won.
“Indiana Foodways Alliance (IFA) represents some of the best local food in Indiana,” said Lindsey Skeen, marketing and media director for the group. “It’s experiencing the food but also the story behind the food. For instance, Superburger in Paoli named their Triple Newk burger after a local teacher. Parke County’s Mecca Tavern is owned by the local football coach. Catello’s Mozzarella Bar in Pendleton is true authentic Italian and one of few places that make their own cheeses daily.
“Most of these locally-owned restaurants started out as pipe dreams and turned into a way of life through dedication, hard work, and perseverance. In restaurant translation, that equals blood, sweat, and tears,” says Lindsey. She cites a great example in downtown Shelbyville, where 81-year-old Shirley Bailey opened the Chaperral Café 50 years ago. Today, at age 81, Shirley still runs her restaurant with the same passion she did back in 1968.
Since 2013, her Purdue University degree in Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism Management has served Skeen well at IFA, and she loves to talk all things food and drink. The married mother of three boys is a Fishers resident and her work takes her all over the state.
“I love eating at locally-owned restaurants and experiencing different areas of local food culture within Indiana and the US. . .” Skeen said. “I love the feeling of walking into a place and seeing personal spin on decor and food. Hearing the stories of the journey of the owner, manager, or chef on owning/running the business is an honor. My grandfather owned a bar in southeastern Indiana for 20 years and I have learned throughout my life it is story behind the food.”
IFA is a nonprofit run by a volunteer board of directors and trail membership continues to grow. Restaurant members pay fees to join or some area visitors bureaus pay the fees on their behalf.
“We have increased membership by 40 percent in the last two years and have projected 30-plus additional restaurants in 2019,” Skeen said.
The organization conducts visits to the restaurant locations before a member is approved. Each member restaurant is exceptional, as determined by on-site assessments and tastings.
“We are not restaurant critics but story tellers. We meet with the owners/managers and find out the story behind the food,” Skeen said. “That’s the best part of my job, connecting with the local restaurant owners. We also find out pertinent information on the restaurant like seating, group seating, do they use locally-grown products in their food, etc. Once the restaurant or business is assessed then they are officially a member of the organization and placed on trails.”
The original seeds of IFA’s history were sown by a group known as the I-69 Cultural Corridor, founded in 1989 to promote activities to increase tourism along Interstate 69. For about fifteen years, sometimes off and on, various members worked together from visitors bureaus and other organizations in Madison, Grant, DeKalb, Allen, Huntington, Delaware and Hamilton counties. They brainstormed, tried programs to attract more tourism, conducted research, and created a long-range development and marketing plan for the corridor. Ultimately, the group was renamed and IFA was born.
“In 2006 the organization undertook a cultural asset inventory to identify common threads among member counties,” said Karen Niverson, a former IFA Board member and one of the founding members. “The inventory revealed a strong culinary product throughout the region and the Culinary trail concept was born in 2007. The initiative was so popular that visitor bureaus and food-related businesses from counties outside our group became interested and almost immediately the Indiana Foodways Alliance became a statewide program.”
Maureen Lambert, marketing and tourism director for the Anderson Madison County Visitors Bureau, was also a founder of IFA and has continued to play a key role throughout the years. She’s currently the IFA treasurer. “As an original member of Indiana Foodways who is still on the Board of Directors, I still have the passion for the success of this organization,” Lambert said. “Culinary tourism has the potential for new product and business development in Indiana.
“Through the development of culinary trails, the components, recognition program and education of Indiana’s food identity, we hope the Indiana Foodways Alliance will turn the Midwest’s attention to food, particularly Indiana, and increase food-related tourism and the excellence in culinary pursuits across the state.”
Pam Sanders has seen success due to IFA membership. Her son, Brad, owns Mecca tavern in Parke County and she helps with promotion. When she had an opportunity to join the tenderloin trail, she was hesitant.
“I kind of wondered what they could really do for us,” Sanders said. “They were amazing. I thought, ‘Really, do people go from restaurant to restaurant to eat tenderloin?’ They do! They call.”
Within a week of being listed on the Tenderloin Trail, the bar went from serving 20 tenderloins a week to 40 and has since been selling 60 to 80 per week. We started turning into a restaurant instead of a bar, thanks to the Alliance,” Sanders said.
And restaurants may be a deciding factor in when visitors are planning their next trip, according to Ashley Gregory, director of sales for Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette. Ashley is the former president of IFA, and is still on the Board of Directors. “Restaurants are very important to tourism,” she states, “everyone wants to eat! When people travel, they always want to know where the locals eat and what food item that area is known for. Locally-owned restaurants are typically the more unique places that have that iconic food item and where the locals like to hang out. They might have a fun unique story behind the restaurant or a crazy menu item that everyone must try, whatever it is, it is something that you can’t find other places. Restaurants are also a lot of times one of the first or maybe only experiences visitors have with local residents and if the food isn’t good or service is bad, they may not come back to visit again.”
When Ashley first started with IFA, she says the “Foodie Movement” was just starting to become a thing. “Since then,” she says, “food has become huge! Everyone is talking about it, taking pictures of it and of course eating it! I think more people are traveling for food and enjoy trying different things which in turn has helped IFA grow. We now include more communities throughout Indiana, have more trails and we continue to work to get the word out about the local places.”
Andrew P. Rohrer is current IFA president, and vice president of sales and marketing for the Blue Gate Restaurant in Shipshewana. He considers a unique trail to be the Soda-licious Trail because of the memories it brings back. He also enjoyed a recent meeting at the Wheel House Donuts in Rockville, with “make your own” donuts.
“Tourism as a whole is a fantastic industry to work in, IFA is more focused obviously but in some ways it’s focused on the best part in my opinion, the food,” Rohrer said. “Every town or region does culinary tourism a little different, each has their “favorites” and passion runs deep when you talk about food. I think that’s the best part; yes eating the incredibly diverse and delicious foods, but also witnessing the passion and pride in what the owner and chef are offering!”
Rohrer believes that IFA has a bright future and will continue to grow, prosper and boost state tourism.
“Food and restaurants are entering a bit of a golden age I think . . .over the last few years media has glorified the chefs and establishments that are providing new and exciting food experiences,” Rohrer said. “Not only in the actual food but also in the design of the space, staff, and ‘story’ behind the food. This has created a hunger–pardon the pun–in the culture for truly unique and wonderful food experiences, something that often the locally owned restaurant down the street or a county over can provide. IFA is in a wonderful position to provide that experience. We give access to the best of the best where discovery before was often only by luck or happenstance. The trails are our way to help tell that story.”
For details on all the trails, go to www.indianafoodways.com