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VOL. 125 | NO. 121 | Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Memphis on the Rocks Latest Vision for Trailblazer

AISLING MAKI | Special to The Daily News

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Whether your drink of choice is cotton candy vodka, a more traditional gin and tonic or a no-nonsense straight-up bourbon, you can quench your thirst Thursday night on South Main Street at Memphis on the Rocks.

The celebration of fine distilled spirits will feature more than 50 premium brands of bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey from several distributors, including Memphis’ Southwestern Beverage Distributing.

“This won’t just be your regular old spirits. We’ll also have brands entirely new to this market,” said Southwestern spokesman Bobby Maupin. “With the technology now going into making these brands, spirits are getting smoother, more flavorful and they’re using more infusions.”

Beer, wine, cordials and cocktails will also be available, as will culinary delights from roughly a dozen Downtown dining establishments, including Pearl’s Oyster House, Safari Tapas Bar and The Silly Goose.

The evening will also include live music by Ryan Peel and a silent auction featuring works by several local artists.

Memphis on the Rocks is the brainchild of entrepreneur Kim Hill, who’s steadily making a name for herself as a trailblazer in Memphis food and drink tourism.

“Kim has great vision. She really hit the nail on the head with this, and we jumped at the opportunity,” said Maupin. “It’s an excellent way to get products out. A lot of young professionals live Downtown, and they’re our target market. But in the long run, I’d like to see this happen in other parts of the city, too.”

When the housing market took its recent serious tumble, Hill, a veteran real estate agent of 16 years, took a gamble on building a small business around her passion for sharing her favorite hometown cuisine and cocktails with good company.

“I love to eat, and my girlfriends were always calling, asking me where to eat. In one evening we’d go to several different restaurants and order several plates to pass around and share,” said Hill.

During a trip to Chicago with friends, Hill planned a food tour of the city for the group.

“I thought, ‘I should be doing this at home,’” she said. “Everyone loved the idea. Food brings people and the community together.”

Hill, a single mother of two, has a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Memphis, where she’s currently working on her MBA.

In February 2009, Hill began building relationships with Memphis restaurants and planning an itinerary. In May that year, she launched City Tasting Tours, www.citytastingtours.com.

“I wanted the general public to enjoy the cuisine of Memphis the way the locals eat,” she said.

Every weekend, Hill and the five tour guides she employs introduce mostly out-of-towners to Memphis fare during one of two culinary tours, both of which last roughly three hours.

Southern Traditions, a walking and trolley tour with stops at seven Downtown restaurants, features fried chicken, fried catfish, fried green tomatoes – “fried everything,” said Hill.

The BBQ Tour transports hungry tourists by shuttle bus to favorite hometown shops to sink their teeth into pulled pork sandwiches, brisket, nachos and ribs.

About 50 restaurants have been featured on the tours, including A & R Bar-B-Que, B.B. King’s Blues Club, Blues City Café, Flying Fish, Ground Zero Blues Club, Gus’s Fried Chicken and Rendezvous.

“The food tour is a great opportunity for anyone from out of town who has no clue where the locals eat. Given by a guide who knows the city, it gives tourists a picture of what Downtown is all about, a taste of Southern culture,” said Flying Fish general manager John May. “We’re happy to be part of it. It’s great to be involved. “

Hill is also busy planning The City Taste (www.thecitytaste.com), Memphis’ largest food festival to date, scheduled for Oct. 9-10 at One Commerce Square.

More than 50 restaurants are expected to participate in the inaugural two-day celebration of Bluff City cuisine.

Hill said the festival, unlike her tours, is geared toward locals and will emphasize Memphis’ vast array of ethnic cuisines, including Mexican, Greek, Italian and Japanese.

The City Taste will also feature live music, wine and beer tastings, cooking demonstrations by local chefs, a children’s cooking corner with cookie and pizza-making activities and an area showcasing restaurants that use primarily locally grown and produced foods.

Hill said many organizations, such as the Center City Commission, Downtown Neighborhood Association and South Main Association, have assisted her efforts by promoting the event and recruiting volunteers.

As a senior project, The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality at the University of Memphis recruited students to develop marketing ideas and deliver promotional packages to local restaurants on behalf of The City Taste.

Hill said her next step is to recruit local investors in hopes of expanding her business plan.

“I love to do this. It doesn’t even feel like work. I think it can grow to be really big,” she said.

Like many small-business owners, Hill said Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and most recently, Four Square, have helped her spread the word.

“Everywhere I go I want to check in,” she said. “I use social media as a platform, and so many people have told me they’ve heard positive things from Facebook or they follow me on Twitter.”

A percentage of The City Taste’s proceeds will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, while a portion of the proceeds from Memphis on the Rocks will support the programs of the YWCA, an organization Hill said played a vital role in helping her start fresh after she escaped an abusive relationship.

It’s an organization WMC-TV reporter Kontji Anthony said played a key role in her life, as well.

“As a young girl, my parents enrolled me at the YWCA not only to learn how to swim, but also to take gymnastics classes. I remember the friendships I made, as well as the life lessons that I carry with me to this day,” said Anthony. “I can’t wait to attend Memphis on the Rocks, because I know it’s for an amazing cause.”

Memphis on the Rocks takes place Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at 409 S. Main St.

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