Only a ‘Taste’ of ‘Taste of Chicago’: Part 2

This year, the Taste of Chicago won’t be half as long as it usually is.

Literally. It’s being cut down to ten days from five.

A bare stage. Get used to the image, since the mayor asserts the focus is on the food, and not the entertainment.

A bare stage. Get used to the image, since the mayor asserts the focus is on the food, and not the entertainment.

The mayor contends the timeframe does not determine the quality nor the experience of the event. As far as cut-backs go, this marks a significant one for the Taste. In 2009, the premises were gated, making patrons subject to searches. Attendance dropped from 3.5 million to 3.3 million. Last year, in 2010, the fireworks were omitted from the holiday-week event, bringing attendance down to an even smaller number: 2.9 million. Musical acts were smaller, and in an attempt to compensate for the lack of big-name musicians, 4 smaller musical festivals were folded into the Taste (Gospel Fest and Country Music Fest to name a couple). Attendance for the 2011 Taste was 2.35 million, the lowest number of visitors since 1986.

Sure, it is called the “Taste,” (‘ol Rahm’s been making quite a trend in literalism) and the food should be in the foreground, but without the added attraction of musical acts and fireworks, attendance has demonstrably dipped. They were welcome distractions, and, in a tough economic time, morale-boosting times to look forward to. The same year the fireworks were first discontinued, I spent my 4th of July celebrating in Dwight, Illinois. It’s barely on the map, quite a ways South of I-55. Small town America. Legitimately small. But, man, did they put up a fireworks display. Likely because the town recognized the importance of the holiday and the fireworks display. The year thereafter, in much the same fashion, I spent it in Morris, Illinois: larger a town, really, only in terms of population. Otherwise, it’s another farm community. But they didn’t skimp on the fireworks, and boy, did it draw a crowd. This day in age, not many things come without a ticket price, and some of the few things to look forward to are things like 4th of July fireworks displays. What’s next, the Thanskgiving Day Parade? The Magnificent Mile Tree-lighting Ceremony?

Folks can’t possibly spend all their time at the Taste eating.

There needs to be some activity, some distraction for them to enjoy their time, and to pass the minutes between hot dogs, rainbow cones, and turkey legs. If you want to make money, and keep them there as long as you’re able, give the patrons the opportunity to take their time. Otherwise, you may as well bill it an eating competition on the same level as “Man v. Food” host, Adam Richman. Can a person spend his 40 tickets and eat all his food before having to make it back to the Metra? Tune in to find out!

But they’ll have even less time – to do anything, much less eat – this coming year. Not only is the entire event being shortened by five days, but each day is being shortened by half-hour, shuttered early at 8:30PM. Again, the Mayor makes the claim that it gives police more time to clear the ground and usher patrons back to trains and buses. Now, if you’re an Average Joe (or Jill), and can’t leave the office until 5PM, how are you supposed to make the most of your time and experience the Taste without rushing? I don’t think it’s possible. I’ve heard some of the white-collar folk working nearby have relegated to take their lunch breaks at the Taste just so they still have a chance to visit, if only briefly.

We’ll already be losing patrons because they’ll go someplace else to see fireworks. We’ll lose more folks who came to enjoy the music, in addition to the food.

Sadly, though, the Taste will no longer have to compete with other festivals during the 4th of July holiday weekend. Not only is it being shortened, but it is being moved to mid-July. If there was even a small glimmer of hope for improving attendance, it surely will be lost without the surge in tourism that comes with that holiday.

Typical attendance for a day at the Taste. See that crowd? Multiply it by two.

Typical attendance for a day at the Taste. See that crowd? Multiply it by two.

Are we to believe that a five-day approach would make this seem like some limited-time-offer, while-supplies-last kind of event? I don’t think so. The only reason the Taste would draw larger daily numbers would be simply because the amount of people that used to come in 10 days now have to come within 5. And before 8:30PM.

This situation can turn one of two ways, either doubling the attendance, or decreasing it significantly when prospective attendees are discouraged by the thought of larger-than-usual crowds. Either way it goes, both are situations neither the city nor the vendors are prepared for, and the effect will be detrimental to the success of this and future Taste events.

I don’t think you can cram something like the Taste of Chicago into a five-day event, even as pared-down as it will be without the headliner musical acts, and the impressive fireworks display. You may as well just hand out cafeteria trays, have everyone get one big, honkin’ line, and have them visit each vendor, where their food will be served to them via an ice cream scoop of predetermined size.

With this, the city will be short-changing itself on revenue that could be made with five more days of the event, and the restaurants involved will surely feel the hit that comes with losing five days of some of the best advertising a business could buy. One of the best parts of this event is the community it builds within the city, uniting patrons with businesses they may never otherwise have tried, and maybe, just maybe making regular clients from it.

Think of it this way, Rahm. This city’s one big, giant store. We’ve plenty to sell.

Are you really going to go and put up a “Closed for Business” sign on the front window?

If you were a Taste of Chicago vendor, how would you react to the mayor’s changes? Do you think more people will come out since there’s less time to experience it? Or do you think the possibility of larger crowds discourage possible visitors from coming to begin with? Sound off on your thoughts and opinions (on the article of course…Chicago pizza is another topic for another day).

Image credit to mechanikat and xmatt.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Jeff Porretto

    Per the usual on these matters, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I’m POSITIVE that a cost vs benefit analysis was done on this. I hate to say it, but if it’s losing money, it’s losing money, and there’s just no wiggle room around that right now. Nostalgia does not factor in.

    Plus, 5 days for the taste only sounds bad because it’s been 10 days previously. If this was a new event, everyone would be saying “Wow a whole week?!” I don’t think the advertising hit will be that great either. Just being AT the taste is the biggest increase in relevency and awareness. The extra time is just a bonus.

    I’m with you though on the half hour thing though. All that accomplishes is shifting the hurried feeling from the employees to the patrons, which is counter productive.

    • Jen

      I totally agree with Jeff! He has a great point, “If this was a new event, everyone would be saying “Wow a whole week?!”- I think this is true because a lot of events in the city are a weekend long tops. I think a week is plenty of time, especially if the festival costs the city so much money.

      I’ve enjoyed reading your rant Eric, nice post 🙂

      • Eric

        You’ve a valid point, however, as the saying goes, “If you give a mouse a cookie…he’s going to want a glass of milk.” We built the Taste. We created the monster. And now folks have grown used to a ten-day long festival, the week of the 4th. If they don’t overwhelm the smaller timeframe, more likely than not, attendance will further decrease and they’ll do the exact opposite of making up for thier losses.

        Half-hour thing? Yep. Total pain in the @#$. Why not have it start an hour or two later? Seriously, who’s going to have an appetite for deep dish pizza at 10 in the morning? Again, too, if people expect the business day to be longer than it is, it’s likely another source of possible tension and strain on the event and those involved.

        One of these days, we just ought to go point-counterpoint, by the by.

  2. Candice J.

    None of these changes make sense to me! First no real music acts, then the fireworks, not the length (days and time), and your moving it to the Middle of July!!! WTH! That doesn’t make logical or practical sense to me! I go to the “Taste” because of the 4th of July! You already get your time off from work (no matter what day it falls on), families coming to visit. How in the world am I just supposed to find time in the Middle of July to go? Assuming it starts on the one weekend, I only have 5 days to go. So if i have plans or obligations i can’t go since i work during the week. I guess he just wants Chicago goers to be SOL. This doesn’t resemble the Taste of Chicago i remember at all. And with all these changes i guess my daughter won’t experience they joys i did either. Booo!!!! 🙁

    • Eric

      I hear you, there, Candice. I really liked that it spanned 10 days, and overlapped onto two weekends, and not just one. It may not seem like giving the public five less opportunities to come would make a significant difference, but I think it will impact the success of the event. Even if everyone and their grandmother came out for the five days…there’s no way in heck the city nor the vendors are prepared to handle that kind of crowd.

      The nice part is, even if the Taste is here and there, you’ve always got your neighborhood joints to go to. Ironically, my family and I first started going to the Taste simply because it saved a lot of gas money not having to drive all across the Chicago metropolitan area to get things like a Ranbow Cone.

      I say we all show up to Rahm’s house and demand him to throw us a 5-day-long barbeque. Why? Well, why not? We won’t have anything else to do with that time.

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I think that cutting the big name music acts was their first mistake. You can argue cost/benefit all that you want, but big name musicians have a way to draw crowds. I’m not really interested in milling about with thousands of people just to try food, but if you have a band that I like playing, I will deal with just about anything to see them.

    I have no idea what a vendor goes through to have a booth at the Taste, but I’m willing to bet that ten days of exposure is absolutely worth the exhaustion of working it for that long.

    • Rachel

      Good point about the musicians drawing crowds, Mandy — I’d definitely go if there was a band there I wanted to see. I understand a lot of the decisions the city is making regarding the Taste, but I just don’t know if those decisions are actually going to be beneficial. Guess we’ll just have to wait and find out this July!

      • Eric

        Totally in agreement. There needs to be some sort of entertainment if you want to retain your patrons and keep them on the Taste premises. The longer they plan to be there, the more tickets they’re likely to buy, and the more money to come in from them. Would anyone spend their entire day at a buffet? Doubt it. That time needs to be broken up. There’s a definite importance to it that is being overlooked, that’s for darn certain.

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