The Taste of Chicago was dead in the water. Once the city’s superstar, the festival had grown tired by the 2000s. It was predictable, stale. Its reputation had been trampled by incidents of violence and food poisoning. It appeared beyond repair, and finally, prior to the 2013 Taste, a Chicago public official challenged its efficacy. Alderman Bob Fioretti led a campaign for either reform or dissolution, saying, “This is definitely the end of the Taste of Chicago unless they prove otherwise.”

There was little hope. After all, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and company already executed major revisions for the 2012 Taste, condensing it to five days, adding up-sells for concert tickets and special dinners, and moving it away from the Fourth of July weekend. The immediate results were uninspiring and included a million-dollar-plus loss to the city. The Taste of Chicago had not turned a profit since 2007. While officials insist profit is not the festival’s goal, a money-sucking festival with a poor reputation is unsustainable anywhere.

Then, something funny happened—and it wasn’t necessarily Mayor Emanuel slipping off his tie and dancing alone to Robin Thicke’s wildly popular hit “Blurred Lines” in an internet video; though, that moment seemed to predict what Chicago found out a couple months later. It appeared the big changes just took a year to catch on, and in 2013, the Taste was deemed a success, reportedly making the city two hundred seventy-two thousand dollars, while welcoming nearly three hundred thousand guests a day (numbers reminiscent of the golden years when more than three million people attended the ten-day event).

The success has continued. Officials consider 2014 a triumph despite a profit loss because numbers were trending toward black before rain washed out the festival’s marquee day (Saturday). And in 2015, while attendance was down about twenty thousand a day from 2013, the city collected more than three hundred thousand dollars in profit. Criticism has grown quiet.

It sure isn’t what it used to be, but the Taste of Chicago has made a miraculous turnaround. While it may still be on thin ice, it is for now off the chopping block, and that was a necessary start. “That was one of many top priorities that [Mayor Emanuel] charged me with,” said Michelle Boone, commissioner of the Taste-organizing Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “How do we invigorate new life and vitality into the Taste of Chicago? And beginning in 2012, which was the year that our department reclaimed Taste, we did some changes. And those changes seemed to have connected very well with the population.”

James Brown was one of the big-name acts that helped vault the Taste to a Chicago treasure.

James Brown was one of the big-name acts that helped vault the Taste to a Chicago treasure.

Rise to glory
When restaurateur Arnie Morton approached then-Mayor Jane Byrne in 1980, as he unsuccessfully had with the previous mayor, he proposed a festival that would bring Chicagoans and tourists together to sample the best food Chicago had to offer. They expected to draw seventy-five thousand to one hundred thousand food enthusiasts for the Fourth of July festival, but for eleven hours, a quarter of a million people filled three city blocks of North Michigan Avenue. Chicagoans and visitors alike sampled food from forty different vendors, while local musicians performed on two different stages. In one day, the food festival grossed three hundred thousand dollars.

In the next few years, the Taste started to establish itself as a Chicago institution; it moved to Grant Park and expanded to three days in length. But then, Harold Washington pulled city sponsorship from the Taste in 1983, citing a lack of funds. During the festival’s year-long hiatus, Washington cut the country’s largest music festival, ChicagoFest, in part because of political controversy, including a 1982 boycott and picket line led by Jesse Jackson and supported by Stevie Wonder, restaurateur Leon Finney, and more than one hundred other black performers. The boycott cost the city millions.

The Taste then returned under a new partnership between the city and the Illinois Restaurant Association. Nineteen eighty-four brought a different flavor than years prior, with big-name musicians filling the void left by ChicagoFest. With each year, attendance and profits grew rapidly; the festival expanded to eight days by 1987, drawing one million more patrons than the year before. Although the city was facing a class action lawsuit over food ticket surcharges, Mayor Washington marshaled a parade down Columbus Drive, exclaiming, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we must eat again!”

In its heyday, unofficially identified as the late eighties through the nineties, the Taste of Chicago generated enough money for the city to pay for all its other free lakefront festivals; millions of Chicagoans and tourists ventured downtown to sample Chicago’s finest cuisine, take in a free concert, and be part of the world’s largest picnic. At the 1982 Taste, McDonald’s premiered its new menu item, the Chicken McNugget; in 1994, attendees, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, enjoyed the view from the top of a ninety-foot Ferris wheel; and in 2003, three vendors worked together to break the world record for longest hot dog.

But there was evidence of trouble. Even in the early years, some Chicagoans saw the Taste’s accelerating growth as dangerous. Just a decade after initiating the festival, Arnie Morton told the Chicago Tribune that he didn’t think vendors were meeting his original intentions, with too much focus on profit. “I’d just like to see some restaurants doing a bit more of a taste of their restaurants, give Chicago a bit more,” he said. “Let’s face it, we’re all out there to make a buck, but some guys are trying to see how little they can do.” By 1995, Morton’s concerns were met; the Taste had a gourmet tent that secured the presence of more upscale restaurants, and each vendor was required to serve at least two small “taste of” portions. The Taste was affordable, small enough to sample many treats, and attendance and profits increased year to year. The Taste of Chicago was officially a city treasure.

Downward spiral
As a recession took hold of the city, combined with incidents of violence (2004, ’05, ’08) and food poisoning (’07), the Taste of Chicago in its present form had to be re-examined. The mayor’s Office of Special Events met to contemplate the event’s sustainability. In his lame duck session, Mayor Daley and his successor, Emanuel, repeatedly reminded Chicago that the early years of Taste of Chicago were about food, and that cutting back on big-name musical acts, like Stevie Wonder, would save the festival.

In November 2010, after months of speculation about privatization, Daley quietly issued a ninety-sixpage request for proposals soliciting event producers to take over the city-run festivals. The festivals came in packages. Producers could bid on the Grant Park festivals, the Millenium Park festivals, or they could make an offer to produce them all. The document specified that the new owners could make changes in the way the events are run, but alterations must be spelled out in the company’s proposal.

Daley acknowledged that this meant that the festivals may not remain free, and Director of Special Events Megan McDonald told a panicked City Council budget meeting that if the city continued to run its festivals in-house, there would be deep cuts. This announcement came in the wake of several controversial deals that privatized several municipal assets over the course of six years. In 2008, the city reached a $1.2 billion contract that relinquished parking meters operations after seventy-five years; and in 2005, it made a ninety-nine-year, $1.83 billion deal that gave away Chicago Skyway toll bridge operations.

Chicagoans loudly opposed privatizing the parking meters and Skyway but were noticeably silent when it came to the Taste. WBEZ blogger Jim DeRogatis, one of few journalists reporting on the bidding, noted that proposals were due at four p.m. on December 23, when few people were likely paying attention.

Only one company, Celebrate Chicago, L.L.C., submitted a bid, and it came with an admission price, an entry fee of twenty dollars, ten of which were in food and drink tickets. Daley turned down the offer, declaring in a January 2011 news conference, “The Taste of Chicago is and will always be free.” He also expressed dismay that the corporation compared the Taste to its Milwaukee-based Summerfest, an eleven-day event that attracts big-name musicians for a hefty price. “It’s called Taste of food. We’re not in it for music; we’re not in it for anything else,” Daley said. “We get into tangents, and the cost is going up. We’re going to get it back down and do the Taste of Chicago for food, and that’s all.”

Seven months later, attendance for the 2011 Taste of Chicago—run for the first time by the Chicago Park District in a last-minute transfer of operations—was down twenty-one percent from the year before, the lowest attendance in twenty-five years, losing the city more than a million dollars. Unpopular cost-saving measures, like cutting the July 3rd Navy Pier fireworks show (in 2010, they were moved to July 4th), and booking lesser-known musical acts, were blamed for the sharp downturn of the already waning festival.

Right away, Mayor Emanuel turned the reins of the Taste over to the newly formed Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, but not before cutting their budget by ten percent. DCASE struggled to find leadership, and the Taste suffered, losing more than a million dollars in 2012.

Taste of Chicago revelers enjoy a loaded funnel cake at the 2015 festivities. Photo by Maggie Rife Ponce

Saving the Taste
Change was necessary. Not only was the Taste a shell of its former self, but also scrutiny was damning and compounding. After Alderman Fioretti’s public challenge in 2013, the Taste would not survive another failed year.

The most jarring revision was to the event’s structure. Officials decided in 2012 to slice the Taste of Chicago in half, from ten to five days. While it did not pay dividends the first year, the measure made the festival more accessible to vendors and more stomachable to residents, who now only have to deal with downtown congestion for an extended weekend. “I think shortening it helped a lot,” Boone said. “The commitment the restaurants have to make for a ten-day event is massive. That allows only a certain type of operation to be a part of Taste. Many were only able to be there for five days or in some cases one day.”

No longer do restaurants have to commit to a full Taste schedule. A pop-up option allows vendors to hop in the festival a la carte, choosing how many days they’d like to participate. Food trucks were also welcomed. The more flexible applications were taken advantage of. In 2015, of the sixty vendors, fifteen were food trucks, and twelve were pop-ups.

The event was also disconnected from the Fourth of July holiday. Once the decision was made in 2010 to shift the city’s massive fireworks show, Boone said, Taste organizers were “freed up” to move the event to “when the city really needed it.” That time was determined to be a week later. The move also had not-so-obvious benefits. The biggest three violent incidents—shootings in 2008, 2005, and 2004—linked to the Taste of Chicago were also linked to the city’s fireworks celebration. The 2008 and 2005 shootings affected guests who were walking home from the fireworks, and in 2004, a teenager was reportedly shot on his way to the fireworks with his family. Now, Boone says, there is no safer place than the Taste. “The Taste is probably the safest place you can be in the city during the time it’s happening,” she said. “It’s a top priority for the mayor. We have been virtually incident-free for at least the last five years, since this office has been managing the event.”

Other revisions came from public input, leading to a more open layout. “We’ve changed the footprint and the spacing of the booths so people aren’t so congested,” she said. “We limit the number of booths that we allow. The former thinking may have been the more, the better, and bigger is better, but we’ve found kind of a sweet spot about what is the threshold of comfort for the visitors’ experience.”

And then, there were guest upgrades. The Taste was still free to attend, and you could still listen to live music from quality performers at no charge, but food and beverage tickets have been on the rise, jumping to two dollars and fifty cents a strip prior to 2015. Emanuel also added a Chef du Juor offering in which residents can pay forty-five dollars to enjoy an intimate three-course meal prepared by Chicago’s top chefs inside an air-conditioned pavilion. Music lovers could also get closer to the action for an up-charge. The closest seats to the stage, for acts such as 2015 performer Weezer, cost fifty dollars.

Taking on obstacles
Do all these changes truly matter? Or are these recent successes just a flash in the pan, a last gasp? The Taste of Chicago was once unique. Today, it is not special. Chicago is the epicenter of the food festival. While the Taste may anchor the list, in recent years, outdoor tributes to food have proliferated the city. If you want it, Chicago probably has it. There’s WingFest in West Loop, Taco Fest in Lakeview, Ribfest in North Center, Windy City Smokeout downtown, Hot Sauce Fest in Avondale, and Lobster Fest at Navy Pier. Then, there are the Tastes: the Taste of Randolph Street, Taste of Greektown, Taste of Lakeview, Taste of Latin America. And the newest trend has two big namesakes (with more on the way): The Chicago Food Truck Fest and the Pilsen Food Truck Social.

Saturation has killed the novelty of the food festival. According to Boone, the Taste is the original on which all others stand, but the volume of food festivals helped the decision to trim the Taste. “In the early years of Taste, there weren’t a lot of other options out there,” she said, “but the Taste has ignited and inspired hundreds of food festivals, and many of them take place in Chicago. So we are not the sole provider of creating an opportunity for people to experience a festival. … And so with—I won’t say competition, but—the addition of new options for people, it just isn’t necessary we had to be the end-all for food festivals by being this two-week event.”

Critics continue to chirp about the Taste, as well, despite its recent successes. Turkey legs and rainbow cones are fun novelties, but for years, the Taste has been criticized for not representing the best of Chicago’s culinary landscape. Boone contends, however, that critique is stale, and her team has worked to counteract it. Anybody who asserts the above, she said, probably hasn’t been to the Taste recently. “The food is really diverse,” Boone said. “But I think you have to also recognize that Taste is what it is: It’s an outdoor food festival that has limitations of food preparation … so you’re not able to have a full-service kitchen on site. … We work really hard to have a diversity of food options. We’re incorporating more and more neighborhood restaurants. It’s not just pizza and Italian beef. But you can get curry goat or you can have lobster corn dogs—how diverse is that?”

Judge for yourself. In 2015, a multitude of ethic cuisines were represented, including African, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin American to go along with stalwarts like pizza, hot dogs, Italian beef, and sausage. The largest genre of food available, however, as dessert, which was the primary menu item from eleven (eighteen percent) of the sixty vendors. Pub food—burgers, sandwiches, etc.—was a close second with ten entries. (Vendors for this year’s event were not available by press time, but were set to be released in late April or early May.)

How then do you classify the current Taste of Chicago: modernized summer festival that has returned to glory, or tired classic wrapped in gauze ready to fall apart at any time? More than a million people will file into Grant Park to find out.

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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