Memphis in a Box
By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Emilee Robinson Photography
When the pandemic brought her City Tasting Tours to a halt, Memphis native Cristina McCarter turned to e-commerce to promote the city’s unique food culture.
The adage “When one door closes, another one opens” rings true for Cristina McCarter, a food entrepreneur whose love and enthusiasm for Memphis and its culinary scene is apparent. For more than four years, she led tourists and locals through downtown Memphis with her City Tasting Tours. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit; restaurants closed and tourists weren’t traveling to the Bluff City. The food tours came to an unexpected halt.
And the adage about friends helping each other through hard times was also true. McCarter threw out the idea to her best friend about putting the tastes of Memphis in a box. “I knew it sounded a little crazy,” she says, “and I knew I couldn’t do it alone.”
Her bestie Lisa Brown was all in with the idea. It helped immensely that Brown also had a food background and marketing experience. As business partners, they launched City Tasting Box, a boutique e-commerce shop, in September. The boxes are filled with a selection of packaged goods from established Memphis restaurants and chefs, up-and-coming local food artisans, and Memphis-inspired crafts.
“I was already thinking about doing something a little extra… something more for the tourists to take home after their food tours,” says McCarter. “After restaurants closed because of COVID, I had to think of a way to keep promoting the Memphis food scene.”
As a marketer, Brown knew the idea for tasting boxes would “blow up and get big.” In just over two months, the duo went from a concept to a business. On the first day alone, they packed and shipped 65 boxes nationwide.
“We started by thinking about who we wanted in the box,” says Brown. “Cris introduced me to local chefs in the city that she knew through her city tasting tours. We also wanted to let people know about all the other food artisans in Memphis.”
Their vision of promoting local eateries and supporting minority-owned businesses was a hit with vendors, especially those who had already been a part of McCarter’s food tours. Jo Beth Graves, owner of Grecian Gourmet Taverna on South Main Street, supplies the house-made Greek vinaigrette for the Support Local Box that McCarter and Brown created.
“We are very fortunate to have a long-term relationship with Cristina. She came in as we were getting ready to open three years ago, and we made her a Greek Nacho, which she featured on her food tours,” says Graves.
As the pandemic extended into summer, Grecian Gourmet Taverna had to shift gears. The restaurant worked with McCarter to develop virtual video tours and then meals were delivered to customers.
“We had to redirect our excitement into other things like the videos and City Tasting Box,” says Graves. “We think Cristina is a great asset to the restaurant community and to the city. Not only are the boxes promoting the city and local businesses, but she is highlighting us [restaurants] all together as a group.”
Currently, two different tasting boxes are offered. The Support Local Box (retail $64.99) features a mix of artisan foods showcasing Memphis’ unique food culture. In addition to the Grecian Gourmet vinaigrette, the smartly designed box also features gourmet popcorn, tea bags, homemade granola, Italian seasoning, and wildflower honey. The Memphis Travel Box (retail $74.99) is a collection of the city’s famous barbecue sauces, seasonings, and classic comfort food staples including cookies from Makeda’s and pork rinds from The Wing Guru. The colorful packaging was designed by Memphis artist Mia Saine.
The boxes make great gifts for food enthusiasts, corporate teams, tourists, and locals. One unexpected market has turned out to be former Memphians. “Half of my best friends now live out-of-state, and they are homesick for Memphis food,” says McCarter. “It’s a definite market.”
With the holidays around the corner, a Sugar-and-Spice Tasting Box will become the newest addition. “It will have a plethora of different things like spices, oils, local popcorn treats, and more,” says McCarter.
Although creating this new e-commerce company has been exciting, McCarter misses the daily camaraderie she had with vendors and chefs as well as her customers. “I miss the tours a lot. I definitely love guiding people through the city and showing them that Memphis has a lot to offer.
“It’s also hard not to have personal contact with vendors,” she says. “I’m used to having in-person conversations, not just over the phone. I hope to help customers connect with the vendors who are represented in the box.”
Brown adds that they hope to capture the vendors’ stories in the boxes. “Every vendor has a story and they shape the Memphis food scene. Our vendors and customers are the north star that keeps us on track and focused.”