Star Gilani doesn't remember much about her childhood in Dubai. Her family relocated to the United States when she was 12, but one memory that has stuck with her vividly is the chicken shawarma.
"I remember we had our groceries delivered there, and I would have them bring me a chicken shawarma every time, but at the end of the month my parents would get the bill and I would get in so much trouble. Still, I kept doing it because the food was that good."
It's a craving that has stuck with her ever since, and she proudly declares the dish as part of her weekly routine. A self-described "foodie," Gilani has spent the past year transforming her passion for the diverse flavors of local restaurants into Best Bites Houston, a thriving food tour company.
Since March her company has offered weekly, intimate walking tours of Downtown Houston that combine food, architecture, history and culture into a three-hour experience. But her path to entrepreneurship started well before that.
Gilani, a graduate of the University of Houston's Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, began her career in the tourism industry.
"Right after I graduated from Hilton College, I started working full time for the city of Sugar Land. I actually started off as a coordinator, and about three months in, I was promoted to the tourism and marketing manager for the city."
In addition to helping brand the town as the "Sweetest City in Texas," Gilani's responsibilities included providing tours to companies considering relocation to the area and other entities interested in the region. In 2016 the travel counselors from the Texas Travel Information Centers recognized her skills as a tour guide as among the best they had seen that year.
Despite her success in the role, she felt her life lacked the balance that was important to her long-term happiness.
"I was just working all of the time. I couldn't go to the gym or anything because I was so consumed by work and just grinding it out every day."
Some self-reflection led her to identify the opportunity that existed for a food tour company in Houston and gave her the confidence that she could successfully fill that void.
"I have always been kind of a huge foodie, and when I was thinking about what I wanted out of my life, and thinking about everything that the city of Houston has to offer, I realized that this was an untapped market," she recalled. "So, I decided to take the plunge and make it an experience."
Gilani left the stability of her position with Sugar Land and began the journey of building Best Bites Houston. She visited other Texas food tours in McKinney and Austin and ultimately connected with Shane Kost, founder of one of the nation's top food tour companies, Chicago Food Planet, whom she now considers a mentor.
"It took me about eight months to develop a product that showcased the diversity of the city and also included a lot of the historical, architectural and cultural artifacts that both visitors and locals would find attractive," said Gilani.
Much of the early stages of her planning was consumed by developing partnerships with Downtown restaurants. The tours, which begin at Discovery Green, feature an eclectic mix of eateries with the stops changing from week to week.
Gilani has secured relationships with favorites such as Brasserie du Parc, Kulture, Phoenicia Specialty Foods & MKT Bar, Reserve 101 and The Rustic.
"We're spoiled, we're so spoiled," Gilani states without hesitation. "When I travel to other cities and eat out and compare it to what we have at home, I constantly think that I miss Houston. Other places just aren't as good or as authentic."
While the food, including, of course, the chicken shawarma at Phoenicia, is the star of the tour, the interactions that occur along the way are just as likely to captivate the guests. Her stops feature visits with the chefs or restaurant management to discuss the carefully chosen fare and specialty drinks featured throughout the evening.
"We're not only eating delicious food, but also meeting people behind the scenes, so particularly for the Best Bite Houston tour, I think it makes us unique compared with other food tours," she explained. "You're getting that face-to-face connection with someone who works there and helped prepare what you’re eating or drinking, so it really goes the extra mile."
In fact, she reports that after virtually every tour, some of her guests will decide to return to one of the stops to sample more of their dishes or drinks. Of course, that's a trend that her restaurant partners appreciate, too.
"They love it because they are seeing the people come back," she beamed. "I get tagged on Instagram when they visit the places again, and those are the big moments that we're seeing when the people come back in the restaurants and are spending a lot of money, so this is exactly what they want."
Whether it's the night of the tour, or weeks later, Gilani is thrilled that her goal of increasing Downtown Houston's accessibility as a destination is being realized.
Gilani's offerings are attracting participants from well outside the region. Guests join from nearby cities such as Austin and Dallas, or from as far as the United Kingdom, Australia and Ethiopia, and all places in between.
A mix of couples, families and solo travelers, every tour has a different composition of guests, which Gilani points to as one of her favorite aspects of her new role.
"Every experience is so memorable to me. I love having international guests join us, and I think it really is a great way to make new friends in a short three-hour time period. When I see people exchanging numbers or Facebook information, I feel like my life is complete," she laughed.
After spending nearly nine months building relationships with restaurateurs and perfecting the tour experience, Best Bites Houston launched its weekly Saturday tour in March. By late June she decided it was time to let two of her biggest skeptics see her vision for themselves.
"When I first told them my plans, my parents thought it was the worst decision I could ever make," remembered Gilani. "I had a stable, government job, and they loved how hard I was working. They just could not understand why I would leave it."
It wasn’t a complete surprise though. Despite owning a successful business in Dubai, Gilani's parents realized their five children, all girls, would have limited opportunities there, particularly career-wise, and chose to move to the U.S.
"I actually took them on separate tours so they could enjoy it on their own,” she said. "My mom cried afterward and said, 'I see what you're doing, and I support you 100 percent and see why you have so much passion for it.'"
Her father's response was just as positive.
Today, Gilani is excited to build on the "good mojo" she has developed. In addition to the weekly tours on Saturdays, customized, private tours are available. A regular Friday night tour is likely to be added soon.
In the meantime, she's happy to be spreading the word about Downtown Houston's amazing restaurants and connecting people who are unlikely to have crossed paths anywhere else.