The smell of summertime grilling filled the air of the Pullman City Market on Wednesday. Food trucks lined the street and dance hall music blared from a stage. This was 2021’s Taste of Chicago To-Go.
In lieu of the annual Grant Park food festival, the city — still recovering from the pandemic — found a new way to host the iconic summer event: neighborhood pop-ups.
The food truck event Wednesday at 111th and South Cottage Grove Avenue was the first of five days of Taste of Chicago pop-up events this week.
Taste of Chicago To-Go pop-up events
noon to 7 p.m. at 5610 W. Lake St.
4 to 8 p.m. at 2559 W. Division St. with a special Goose Island Brewery event from 5 to 8 p.m. at 1800 W. Fulton St.
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “Taste of West Side” at 135 N. Kedzie Ave. “I am Community” art installation at 10:30 a.m.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eli’s Cheesecake and Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs at 6701 W. Forest Preserve Drive.
1 to 8 p.m. 6300 S. Wood St.
noon to 3 p.m. “Let’s Talk Women Picnic in White” at 201 E. Randolph St.
While the city couldn’t plan for 1.5 million people to safely gather as usual, Neal Heitz, director of event production for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said the department could pull off pop-up events “on a dime.”
“Going to neighborhoods was an opportunity to engage the Invest South/West that is a real priority for this administration and spread the Taste throughout the whole city,” Heitz said, referring to Mayor Lightfoot’s community development initiative.
The Pullman City Market sported 10 food trucks Wednesday. The last Taste of Chicago in Grant Park in 2019 had 82 food vendors for attendees to choose from.
But for some vendors and foodies, the smaller event offered a connection to neighborhoods the large event often misses.
Rebecca Vanderkloot operates Doom Street Eats, a food truck out of the Pilsen/Little Village area. She said the truck has been at Taste of Chicago for five years but this year’s neighborhood pop-up version is a great way to help communities.
“Some of the pop-ups are in the places that don’t always get attention,” she said, adding that the pop-ups give people who normally can’t make it to the downtown event a chance to attend.
Elizabeth Nix said she thought the address was a mistake at first but was glad the city offered something good for the community to look forward to.
“There’s been so much violence it’s nice to have something positive in our community,” Nix said.
While the city tried to host a spinoff Taste of Chicago last year, it had to work around pandemic safety measures that some vendors said weren’t the best.
“Last year, they had us drop food off in different communities,” Caribbean-Asian fusion Whadda Jerk food truck owner Thomas Brewer said. “This … gets people outside and gives some kind of normalcy.”
New small-business owner Ebony Blue also got a chance to show the South Side what she has to offer: coffee.
Southside Grinds, a mobile coffee bar started in 2019, made its first appearance at the Taste of Chicago, handing out ice-cold drinks and peach cobbler to sweaty attendees.
The line for the small Black-owned business never let up. The bar even had to stop serving its iced drinks for a short period after running out of ice.
“It’s really exciting to know that our mission and our vision and our hope for the South Side comes across to people,” Blue said.
But Wednesday wasn’t just for food trucks. The Get Growing Foundation’s Plant Truck Chicago made an appearance, too, selling cacti and moss-ball Kokedama plants.
Still, for some, Taste of Chicago To-Go couldn’t beat the bigger, grander Grant Park event seen in years past.
Bryant Hobbs, 53, said he understood the city had to make a difficult decision but the event in Grant Park is “one of the events of the summer.”
But Heitz said there is no telling what next year’s event could see.
“In a perfect world, there [would] be an ability to do all these things and the downtown event,” Heitz said.
Right now, he said, the city hopes the pop-ups will help restaurants regain some of revenue lost to the pandemic.
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.