When Randy Harter and his daughter, Sarah Arnold, visit new cities with their spouses, they like to take food tours.
“It kind of gives you a VIP tour of the city,” Arnold says. “A lot of times, the chefs or restaurant management will come out and talk to you, so you get the local flavors and history.”
Staff at the Hoppy Gnome tells the Food Tour about the restaurant's menu and history.
But to their surprise, the father-daughter duo realized about three years ago that Fort Wayne was lacking a food tour of its own.
While the Summit City had a growing number of premier local restaurants downtown, it didn’t have a way to showcase its evolving foodie culture, so they took it upon themselves to fill the gap.
Today, in their third year of operation, their business called Fort Wayne Food Tours takes groups of 8-12 guests to a handful of restaurants downtown to get a taste of the Summit City’s dining scene and learn about its local history while they’re at it.
Harter, right, jokes with guests on a Saturday food tour.
A historian by nature, Harter retired from his career in sales and marketing about eight years ago and has since been using his spare time to delve into his hobby. He’s written three books on Fort Wayne history, founded the Fort Wayne History Roundtable, and become a docent on the Sweet Breeze canal boat.
Between writing his first and second history books, his wife suggested teaming up with their daughter to launch Fort Wayne Food Tours as a creative outlet for his extensive knowledge.
“It’s that simple,” Harter says.
His daughter, Arnold, runs her own digital marketing company called Socially Seasoned. Since she and Harter launched Fort Wayne Food Tours, she’s taken over the behind-the-scenes roles on its website and social media, while he leads the tours downtown.
Sarah Arnold, left, and her father, Randy Harter run Fort Wayne Food Tours.
Each year, on Saturdays from April to October, Fort Wayne Food Tours takes guests on a 3.5-hour, 1.25-mile loop of the city center, stopping at four local eateries along the route. The 2019 lineup includes Don Hall’s Gas House, the Hoppy Gnome, Proximo, and DeBrand Fine Chocolates.
While some of the stops change from year-to-year as new restaurants open, Harter says one thing that remains the same is the food tour’s starting point at Don Hall’s Gas House on the banks of the St. Marys River.
Staff at Proximo tells the Food Tour about the restaurant's focus on Latin faire.
When Harter began the food tours, the Gas House was the first restaurant he approached because it had a spacious parking lot. Since then, its support of his concept and its unique role in local history have solidified its spot on the list.
The Halls family opened their first restaurant in Fort Wayne in 1946, Harter notes. Since then, they’ve opened about 10 restaurants in the Fort Wayne area, including the Gas House in 1957.
“The building was built in 1908,” Harter says. “The reason it’s called the Gas House is because this property here, including the parking lot, used to be a gas plant where they actually manufactured gas, primarily for lighting and for cooking.”
Harter shares the history of Hall's Gas House.
Along with a deep dive into the history of downtown’s hot spots and historic buildings, Fort Wayne Food Tours also offers its guests larger-than-average size portions of food.
“Compared the food tours I’ve been on, you’ll find that all four of our restaurants overfeed us,” Harter says. “They’re very generous, and I think that’s just part of the way Fort Wayne is.”
For a $60 ticket, guests get hearty samplings of local delicacies, starting with a plate of filet minion, sautéed mushrooms, and mashed potatoes with garlic butter at Hall’s—complete with a glass of red wine. Gratuity is included in the tour’s ticket price, but all additional alcoholic beverages must be purchased separately.
The Food Tour starts at Halls with a plate of filet minion, sautéed mushrooms, and mashed potatoes with garlic butter as well as a sampling of red wine.
Valerie Richardson, who was hosting her sister from Indianapolis for the weekend, tried Fort Wayne Food Tours on a whim in early June. What she discovered was a one-of-a-kind experience that rivaled tours she had taken in bigger cities.
“I’ve been on a lot of food tours, and this one is surprisingly excellent,” Richardson says. “I know lots of people locally who have out of town guests, and wonder: What should we do with them? We never think to say: ‘Oh, there’s a great local food tour.’”
A serving of appetizers at the Hoppy Gnome.
Even so, while Harter says he originally thought most of his tour guests would be out-of-towners, he’s found that about 85 percent of them live in the Fort Wayne area. Often, they’re looking for a chance to rediscover their hometown, he says.
Along with the group's regularly scheduled Saturday tours from 3-6:30 p.m., Fort Wayne Food Tours also offers custom Private Tours for small groups and businesses, Arnold notes. Teachers groups, staff appreciation days, and birthday parties are frequent bookings.
“It’s perfect if you have a small team of about 8-12 people,” she says.
DeBrand Fine Chocolate employs nearly 100 people with four retail shops in Fort Wayne, one in Indianapolis, and a mail order department that ships all over the world.
For Harter, the people are what it’s all about. The joy of the experience comes from meeting new people and connecting them to the restaurateurs who are writing the next chapter of Fort Wayne’s history.
“We have a lot of nice restaurant folks in town,” he says. “At this point, I have restaurants asking if they can be part of the tour. The whole experience has really been a bonus for me. I enjoy doing it, and I’ve met lots of fun people along the way.”
Try Fort Wayne Food Tours
Fort Wayne Food Tours offers a history-filled experience of four local restaurants on Saturdays from April through October. Tour routes are 1.25 miles from 3-6:30 p.m. Tickets are $60 and must be purchased in advance online. All tours meet at Don Hall’s Gas House at 305 East Superior Street in downtown Fort Wayne.
To learn more and book tickets, visit www.fortwaynefoodtours.com.