Chicago restaurants are not exactly chomping at the bit to participate in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to shrink and revamp Chicago’s premier summer festival – by cutting Taste of Chicago from 10 days to five and bumping it to mid-July.
Only 40 restaurants applied to participate for the full five days, precisely the number of openings the city hopes to fill. That prompted the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to extend Tuesday’s deadline until the close of business Friday.
An invitation to 200 restaurants that had never before participated in the Taste triggered 15 applications to become so-called “Pop Up” restaurants for just one day. That’s a new feature added this year.
“Pop Up” restaurants pay no application fee, but must share 20 percent of their gross receipts with the city after taxes. Five-day participants pay a $1,500 application fee at filing, $1,500 on acceptance and 18 percent of gross receipts.
The somewhat lackluster response is not surprising, considering the drop in both attendance and restaurant revenues at last year’s Taste and Emanuel’s decision to shorten this year’s event.
But Cindy Gatsiolis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, tried to put the best possible face on the applications.
“Forty restaurants applied. We feel that’s pretty good. But we’ve gotten many phone calls from previous vendors who are intending to apply, but just hadn’t sent their paperwork in. It’s a crazy business. Their hours are different from business hours. So, we’re extending the deadline until Friday,” she said.
“We know it’s going to grow in the next couple of days. I think we’ll be good shape.”
The Emanuel administration announced in December that Taste of Chicago would be cut in half – from 10 days to five – and bumped to July 11-15 from its prime position around July 4th weekend.
The move was aimed at reversing $7 million in losses over a three-year period that officials said taxpayers should no longer subsidize.
Yet another test will come March 6, when bids are due for companies interested in managing food and beverage operations at the Taste. That’s a contract the Illinois Restaurant Association has held for more than three decades but has not yet decided whether to compete for again.
“The time frame is going to be very condensed,” said the association’s president, Sheila O’Grady, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s longest-serving chief of staff.
“We’re doing a lot of work with G-8 and NATO. We’ve got a big project for the month of May celebrating cuisines from around the world to celebrate the world leaders coming in. It’s a dining program to incent people to eat out. Our main focus is on that program and getting it up and running.”
Last year’s Taste drew 2.35 million visitors – down 11 percent from 2010 and 37.5 percent from the event’s 2006 and 2007 heyday.
The 59 participating restaurants made $4.9 million – 20 percent less than the year before. The losses were blamed on the Chicago Park District’s decision to close earlier, cancel the city’s official fireworks show, fold Chicago’s four least popular music festivals into the Taste and focus on local talent and family-oriented events, instead of big name entertainment.
That’s another thing that will change at this year’s event.
“We’re still looking at headline names. There are definitely headliners coming to Taste of Chicago in different musical genres, including country, R&B and pop,” Gatsiolis said, without naming names.