Farm to table to tourism: Local culinary exploration on the rise in Columbia

Travel is big business for South Carolina’s hotels, attractions and especially its restaurants. Visitors to the Palmetto State like to eat, as evidenced by the $3.6 billion generated in food sales in 2014, according to the state’s Recreation, Parks and Tourism Department.

Bourbon owner Kristian Niemi serves up specialty drinks for the tour guests as he tells them about the restaurant and the building's history (photo by Allen Wallace).

Bourbon owner Kristian Niemi serves up specialty drinks for guests of Columbia Food Tours as he tells them about the restaurant and the building’s history. (File photo by Allen Wallace)

Low gas prices and the growth in farm-to-table restaurants and the craft beer industry are why tourism experts say this summer is a great time to hop in the car explore South Carolina’s food culture.

“We’ve got a stronger economy and that’s been feeding the cuisine culture,” said Robin DiPietro, a professor in the University of South Carolina’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. “This is going to be great year for people to explore a little.”

DiPietro said the interest in the culinary industry has been fueled in part by the rise of local, independently-owned eateries.

“When you go out of town, you want to have something that’s local and fresh,” said Brian Cole, owner of Columbia Food Tours. “I think with the recent years of the farm-to-table movement, people are waking up to the idea that fresh is best.”

And the trend toward local is bringing attention — and dollars — to the small farms that supply the produce, meat and eggs for dining spots around the city, Cole said.

“I might stop at a mom-and-pop place that has local greens or local flavor. Why eat at a national chain when you can have something you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

Focusing on local

When Wesley Fulmer, chef of Motor Supply Co. Bistro in the Vista, develops one of his daily menus, he likes to cook what folks in Columbia eat. The focus on local cuisine is what gives outside visitors to the restaurant a different side of Midlands culture on a plate.

“When they taste local staple ingredients from the Midlands — whether it be fresh S.C. produce, grass-fed heritage meats or corn products from Congaree Milling Company up the street — they get a taste of the rich culinary history and overall culture of the region,” he said.

Since taking over as executive chef in 2014, Fulmer and his crew have turned Motor Supply into one of the must-go dining spots in Columbia for its creative take on Carolina cuisine.

Motor Supply Co. Bistro head bartender Josh Streetman uses local liquors to make craft his cocktails. (Photo provided)

Motor Supply Co. Bistro head bartender Josh Streetman uses local liquors to make craft his cocktails. (Photo provided)

DiPietro said food-based television shows like those on Food Network have shined a light on the inner workings of the food industry and introduced established and rising chefs to a larger, more mainstream audience.

“People are realizing the impacts of the restaurant industry,” DiPietro said. “Now they’re able to use their knowledge and seek out chefs and pop-up events where chefs will be.”

Notoriety does not stop in the kitchen. Motor Supply’s head bartender Josh Streetman has had his cocktails featured in national publications like U.S. Airways magazine and Garden & Gun magazine.

“Restaurants are the first place and the most visible accent of an experience that visitors are likely to have in a city,” Streetman said. “We, as industry professionals, have a unique potential to let our homes shine in the eyes of visitors by providing outstanding service and quality food and drink experiences. And by highlighting our farming partners and local purveyors, we can add emphasis to that.”

Fulmer and Streetman say the high quality of Motor Supply’s food and drink is made possible by the friendships they’ve developed with farmers in Richland and Lexington counties.

Motor Supply’s sales means business for their suppliers, whether it’s Lever Farms for strawberries in a sauce or salad, or Copper Horse Distilling and Crouch Distilling for a Carolina Mule or Ginger Daisy.

“I love when someone mentions that they’re going to go get a local vodka or bourbon because they loved it in a drink we served them,” Streetman said.

Culinary tourism

When Brian Cole and his wife, Kristin, started Columbia Food Tours in 2014, they wanted to offer visitors and locals a chance to step away from national chains and to discover restaurants that offer local fare.

“The food scene is blossoming,” Cole said of Columbia. “We have people come from all over the world; and even if it’s just a different part of the country, just being able to introduce people to new flavors and dishes is incredible.”

Pawley's Front Porch is one of several food trucks popular in Columbia. (photo by Allen Wallace)

Pawley’s Front Porch, which is on Harden Street in Five Points, also has a food truck. (File photo by Allen Wallace)

Cole said he and his wife pick restaurants that they like and those they think would interest someone who’s not a local.

Their tours are features stops at spots around town like the Oak Table, Bourbon, Villa Tronco and the Capital City Club. Tours also take guests to Pawleys Front Porch and Yesterday’s in Five Points.

Cole said it can be amusing to see people taste Southern delicacies like shrimp and grits, pimento cheese, mustard-based barbecue sauce and boiled peanuts.

“At first, they say it’s the craziest thing they’ve seen and when they’ve tried it, it’s amazing,” he said.

DiPietro said the best culinary trips can include food tours, festivals or just simply going off the beaten path. Planning ahead, DiPietro said, and searching for unique flavors can make food travel fun.

“Don’t just search the city you’re going to,” DiPietro said. “Look at the places around it and stumble into a couple of others.”

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