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Taste of Chicago restaurants’ profits down 20 percent

Crowds gather line Original Rainbow Cone booth hot day Taste Chicago last month. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Crowds gather in line at the Original Rainbow Cone booth on a hot day at Taste of Chicago last month. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 16, 2011 12:18AM

Taste of Chicago’s 59 restaurants made $4.9 million — 20 percent less than last year’s take — underscoring the need for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to revamp the city’s premier summer festival.

Last week, the Chicago Park District acknowledged that the scaled-down Taste it hosted for the first time this year drew 2.35 million visitors, down 11 percent from 2010 and 37.5 percent from the event’s 2006 and 2007 heyday.

The attendance drop was blamed on the 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 names.

“I knew what my sales were each day, and I knew we were down,” said Charles Robinson, owner and founder of Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs.

His ribs and other offerings were among the top sellers — bringing in $200,000 during the 10-day event. But business was down by about one-third, he said, when compared to 2010 sales which hovered around the $300,000 mark.

After listening to Emanuel, who said the event will continue but could be improved, Robinson said he’s positive the Taste will be recalibrated.

“If they [city officials] get involved and promote the event, get some big entertainment and open it up to longer hours, we can bring it back,” Robinson said, adding: “We need to bring the suburbanite in metropolitan Chicago to this event. They have the disposable income” and will shell out the money for some food and fun.

He said that perhaps the Taste should be privatized.

On Monday, Taste of Chicago’s 59 participating restaurants got their checks from the city and the results were an even bigger disappointment.

Their revenues were down 20 percent — from $6.1 million in 2010 to $4.9 million in gross sales this year.

The top five vendors were: Original Rainbow Cone ($240,917); Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen ($233,056); Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs ($207,631); Dominicks ($164,392) and Churro Factory ($164,392), according to figures obtained by the Sun-Times.

Rounding out the Top Ten were: Eli’s Cheescake ($162,089); Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria ($125,184); Vienna Beef/Gold Coast Dogs ($125,112); Harry Caray’s ($122,100) and Reggio’s Pizza ($120,101).

The question now is whether sponsorships, ticket pre-sales and the Park District’s cost-cutting efforts for everything from fireworks to security will make up the $1.1 million needed to break even.

“Early projections suggest a deficit on the revenue side,” said park district spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, who could not confirm the numbers obtained by the Sun-Times. She said the park district’s final calculations for sponsorships, food and beverage sales and other revenues were not in.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that profit-and-loss statements released by the city showed that Taste and the six other lakefront festivals together lost $6.9 million over the last three years.

In 2008, Taste was still a cash cow, generating $14.4 million in ticket sales, $2.4 million in sponsorship fees and gross revenues of $17.3 million. After expenses, the city’s premier event ended up $2.5 million in black.

One year later, Taste lost $1.5 million after expenses. Ticket sales had dropped to $11.8 million. Sponsorship was down to $1.7 million.

In 2010, the event managed to turn a $170,749 profit, but only because the decision to replace the annual July 3 fireworks extravaganza in Grant Park with three smaller fireworks shows reduced the cost of city services to $5.8 million, down from $7.4 million the year before.

Last winter, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to privatize the Taste fell flat on its face. At the mayor’s insistence, City Hall rejected a lone bidder’s proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the Taste and kept the admission free.

Emanuel has vowed to take a second look at how the event is staged — even after praising Police Supt. Garry McCarthy for getting through his first Taste with a nearly 50 percent drop in arrests, a 20 percent reduction in citations for soliciting, panhandling and peddling without a license and without a single incident involving illegal weapons.

But, the mayor promised that the city’s premier lakefront festival would live on.

“It doesn’t mean we still do it the same way we’ve done it. We’ll ask some core questions. I await the report [from the Park District]. But, the Taste of Chicago brings people from literally around the world and around the country to Chicago because it’s a family-friendly event. We will ask questions about how to do it better, but not [about] whether we should,” the mayor said.

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