Taste of Chicago patrons to pay more for food, concert seats

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Taste of Chicago patrons will pay more to attend concerts and purchase food tickets, under a mayoral plan approved Wednesday to boost profits at an event that used to be a drain on the city treasury.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley once declared that Taste of Chicago would “always be free.” Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s premier lakefront festival is getting a little less free every year.

On Wednesday, the City Council approved Emanuel’s latest plan to ring more revenue out of a Taste that finally turned a $272,000 profit last year—by raising the surcharge on food tickets, doubling to $50 the cost of “premium seats” for concerts at the Petrillo Music Shell and selling 3,000 “general admission lawn seats” that used to be free.

Under the mayor’s latest plan, concert seats closest to the Petrillo stage will cost $50. Seats farthest away will cost less than $25. The average cost per concert ticket will not exceed $25. The fee for 3,000 lawn seats has not yet been revealed, but 34,000 lawn seats will remain free.

The surcharge on food tickets — frozen since 2008 — will increase from $2 to $2.50 for a strip of 12 food tickets, meaning a price jump from $8 to $8.50.

Emanuel has defended the latest tweaks as the part of the evolution of an event that was once in danger of being eliminated.

“If you’re going to the concert, you can still see the concerts free. If you want seating, that’s a different thing,” the mayor has said.

Emanuel was asked why he’s insisting on charging for lawn seats when he’s already stopped the bleeding. Doesn’t the Ravinia-style plan to charge for lawn tickets threaten to create two classes of Taste-goers?

The mayor never answered the question. He just stayed on message.

“When I ran for mayor, the Taste of Chicago for a number of years was losing money. Everybody was pushing to scrap it. I said, `No, we’re going to reform it and change it.’ Three years later, it made a little money,” Emanuel said.

“There’s now food trucks, which never existed before. There are also celebrity chefs that have seatings and a fixed menu. All of those changes have added to [the experience]. . . . We actually showed that you can not only make the changes, [but] modernize the Taste of Chicago. Chicago is more than what it used to be. It’s the culinary capital of the world.”

Three years ago, Daley rejected a lone bidder’s proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the Taste and declared the Taste would “always be free.”

To reverse $7 million in festival losses over the prior three years, the city handed the Taste off to the Park District and folded the city’s four least-popular music festivals into the Taste. The experiment was a bust.

Determined to stop the flow of red ink, Emanuel cut the Taste from 10 days to five and bumped it to mid-July from its prime position around July 4th.

The number of restaurants was reduced. So-called “pop-up” restaurants that had never before participated were allowed to get in on the Taste for just one day without paying the $3,000 application fee in exchange for 20 percent of their revenues.

Celebrity chefs prepared three-course, sit-down meals for $40 a person, and — for the first time — Taste patrons were asked to pay $25 each for 3,000 reserved concert seats at Petrillo.

To skeptics, it looked like the new mayor was preparing to wash his hands of an event that had become a drain on taxpayers and suffered security problems.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded.

Taste of Chicago turned a $272,000 profit in 2013 for the first time in six years — thanks to a recipe that included perfect weather and a popular music lineup. It was a $1.6 million turn-around in just one year.

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