Karen-Lee Ryan, founder of Walk Eat Nashville, welcomed us on the steps of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Over the next three hours, she explained, our group of 12 would visit six restaurants and walk a mile and a half to discover what the SoBro (South Broadway) neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, has to offer in history and cuisine.
Ryan gave us an opportunity to introduce ourselves, and then she began the tour with a story—the story of the collaborative and creative spirit of Nashville, its musicians and its chefs.
Before Walk Eat Nashville, Karen-Lee Ryan was an editor. For several years, she managed content for tennessean.com, and for 18 months she worked as a newspaper executive in San Antonio, Texas.
“I just decided that wasn’t really something that was feeding my heart,” she says, “and I really wanted to do something that brought joy to my day every day. And what I found about Walk Eat Nashville was… for me, it’s a different way to tell stories.”
The first stop on our tour was just inside the symphony center: Cherry Street Eatery & Sweetery. There, we sampled a deliciously gooey pimento cheese panini while Ryan unloaded an arsenal of knowledge about owner and chef Meg Giuffrida, traditional southern cuisine and the Schermerhorn itself.
As founder of Walk Eat Nashville, Ryan fills many roles: researcher, marketer, administrator, guide. But as she puts it, “Part of what I love about the job is that I’m somebody who gets bored very easily, so the variety is really great for me.”
Of all her duties, Ryan says being on tour is her favorite. “I absolutely love being out on tour,” she says, “and I love doing the research for new tours. I’m a huge sponge for information, so I’m always trying to learn new things.”
Ryan guided us down Broadway, around the Bridgestone Arena and through Music City Walk of Fame Park, telling us stories about architecture, country music history and Captain Thomas Green Ryman. Our next stop was the Encore building, where we enjoyed margaritas and tacos at Bakersfield Nashville, followed by a tasting with founder and executive chef of The Farm House, Trey Cioccia.
Ryan became interested in walking tours when she lived in Washington, D.C. “When I lived there, I was doing a lot of ‘things to do and places to go’ kind of writing as a freelancer,” she explains, “but there was a point during my time in Washington D.C. when I wanted to do a walking company.”
Unfortunately for Ryan, another entrepreneur had had a similar idea the year before and was already conducting tours in the D.C. area. “I just kind of tucked the idea in the back of my head because I’ve always loved to walk and be outside,” Ryan says.
After living in Nashville for seven years, moving to San Antonio and then moving back, she realized it was time to turn her idea into a reality. “We were getting so much attention for our food that I started thinking, I wonder if I could combine walking and eating.”
In 2014, Ryan enrolled in an entrepreneurship class at The Skillery, a co-working space in Nashville. After nine weeks, she says, “I launched Walk Eat Nashville, and I’ve been busy ever since. It has been an incredible experience.”
From the The Farm House, we set out toward the Ascend Amphitheater, and then Husk—one of Nashville’s most critically acclaimed restaurants—for prohibition-style cocktails, deviled eggs and a tour of their vegetable garden. Along the way, Ryan told us the tale of the Nashville Trolley Barns and showed us the former site of Thomas Ryman’s home.
Walk Eat Nashville has grown quite a bit since 2014. To meet increasing demand, Ryan has hired on three more tour guides, all of whom are natural storytellers with backgrounds in research and journalism. But Ryan says she’s not planning on growing the business too quickly.
“I have a lot more demand for tours than I can meet,” she says, “but my goal is to make sure that every guest experience is a really authentic Nashville experience… I spent most of the last 15 years before this business in front of the computer, and I knew I wanted to spend the bulk of my time not in front of the computer. If I hired a bunch of tour guides and grew the business, I would end up being the person behind the computer managing all the tour guides, and that is not my goal.”
What keeps Ryan inspired is the relationships and interactions she has with her guests and the restaurant owners she partners with. “Because to see their passions every day,” she says, “that’s what fuels me all the time. Everyone that I work with has an incredible passion and pride for what they do, and I love sharing that with other people.”
Our tour ended with a sweet treat—coffee soda at Steadfast Commons and Goo Goo Clusters at The Goo Goo Shop. Afterward, Ryan took some time to chat with one of the guests, a fellow tour guide who was looking for ways to improve his own business.
According to Ryan, the most important thing an entrepreneur can do is build relationships. “Obviously relationship are important in everything,” she says, “but I think for an entrepreneur they can be more important than anything. I think a lot of entrepreneurs feel like they have to do everything themselves, and the reality is working with others and partnering with others is part of what will help a business flourish.”