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Revamped, smaller Taste of Chicago didn't come close to breaking even

Updated: October 22, 2012 5:51PM

The shrunken and revamped Taste of Chicago still didn't come close to breaking even and may never return to profitability, a top mayoral aide said Monday.

Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone said the she's "still reconciling" the cost of city services before releasing a final financial report on the revamped 2012 Taste.

But, she disclosed that Chicago's premier lakefront festival costs $6 million to stage and isn't "close to breaking even." That's despite the fact that individual restaurants saw their highest profit margins in five years.

Taste of Chicago was once a cash cow that bankrolled the city's other music festivals. But, Boone said it may never return to profitability.

"It's very difficult to find a financial model that creates profitability for a free festival," the commissioner said after testifying at City Council budget hearings.

"We certainly have reversed the downward trend. Whether or not we're able to totally close the gap or if we did that this year is still to be determined. The cost of city services has increased, so that'll impact that number."

But, what about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's mandate to stop the bleeding?

"The mayor's mandate is to present a family-friendly event that is safe, entertaining, showcases our culinary scene and provides high-quality entertainment for Chicagoans. We don't have a mandate for profitability for programs at-large," Boone said.

"The focus has always been on Taste in the past about the revenue. But, our goal is to present a safe, enjoyable experience for residents and visitors....We would like to minimize the burden and the cost to taxpayers as much as possible. Whether or not you can have a break-even point for Taste, we're still learning."

To reverse $1 million in losses in 2011 alone, Emanuel cut the Taste--from ten days to five--and bumped it to mid-July from its prime position around July 4th.

The number of restaurants was reduced. A handful of "pop-up" restaurants that had never before participated were allowed to get in on the Taste for just one day. Celebrity chefs--including Graham Elliot and Girl & the Goat's Stephanie Izard--prepared three-course, sit-down meals for $40-a-person.

For the first time, Taste patrons were asked to pay $25 each for 3,000 reserved concert seats at the Petrillo Music Shell that had long been free.

The concert tickets and Chef du Jour brought in $280,650 in additional revenue. The city plans to duplicate that foremat in 2013.

Boone said there are no plans to raise the price of concert tickets or the surcharge on food tickets. Nor is there any plan to charge an admission fee.

Two years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley's plan to privatize the Taste fell flat on its face. At Daley's insistence, City Hall rejected a lone bidder's proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the Taste and kept the admission free.

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