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7/20/2003

Eating on the fly

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — On a dreary afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 1990, Peggy Markel paused from her work at Alfalfa’s market in Boulder to pop a mid-life question. The native Alabamian wondered what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

“‘Study Italian.’ That’s what a small voice said to me then, and I would attribute all of the biggest successes in my business to listening to that voice,” said Markel, now 46.

The Longmont resident has since developed Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures. Her business connects cuisine to culture by offering “purposeful” vacations — overseas excursions that combine cooking classes and tours in key regions of Italy and Morocco.

She has advertised in flagship publications such as The New Yorker magazine and more esoteric reads like the The Shaw Guide.

But word of mouth still works best in growing a business. In 2003, Markel scheduled 10 weeklong trips to regions distinct for local crops and related recipes.

“People’s experiences have really translated,” she said. “I have led close to 1,000 people.”

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the decade she had spent developing the business paid off handsomely with $700,000 in annual sales.

Revenues dropped by 35 percent when Americans embraced a no-fly sentiment immediately afterward. But Markel doubled her marketing efforts to recoup. She revisited old trip rosters and dropped prices in some cases.

Airfare is not included in the average $4,000 single-occupancy registration fee. But it covers everything else — accommodations, three meals per day, all cooking instruction, tours, tastings and local transportation.

“It’s not just going from ruin to ruin or restaurant to restaurant,” Markel said.

Instead, she hopes to help clients find the “soul” of the regional cooking by being there and meeting the people.

These days, planning and leading trips keeps Markel on the road six months out of the year.

“Funny enough, I come back to stop moving,” she said in her Longmont kitchen, remarkable for its expansive, white Italian marble counters.

But she started small by first enrolling in Italian classes at the University of Colorado in spring 1991, weeks after her original mini-midlife crisis.

She also forked over just $400 — tickets were cheap after the first Persian Gulf War — to fly to Italy for three weeks immediately following finals week at CU that semester.

“My goal was to study cooking with someone — a grandmother or mama in the hills,” she said.

On Markel’s first night there, she met a local chef and started brainstorming ideas to share a kitchen for the purposes of education and entertainment — from showing students how to make pasta in traditional shapes and fillings to sharing flavoring secrets.

That year, she founded La Cucina al Focolare, “Cooking by the Fireside,” and began building a network of those versed in the local culinary arts, wine experts and others who could relate the longstanding influence of culture on Tuscany’s much-loved cuisine.

Since setting is everything, the flagship of her business remains a Tuscan tour based at a 15th-century villa called Fattoria degli Usignoli, “Farm of the Nightingales,” located on 55 acres overlooking the Arno Valley.

Markel landed similarly picturesque compounds for the other Italian tours in Sicily and Elba — an island in the Italian archipelago, where Napolean was exiled in 1814 — and a Marrakech, Morocco, site in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains.

Without a business background, she said, she has made some regrettable mistakes. For instance, she should have advertised more aggressively after a New York Times reporter took a tour on his vacation and wrote a flattering article Jan. 5, 1994.

“That was a gift,” she said. “I should have marketed more during that flurry (of interest).”

But plenty of people across the business board have succeeded just going with their gut.

“It’s more than just spreadsheets,” Markel said. “It’s about sensibilities.”

For more information, visit the Web at www.cookinitaly.com.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.