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Rahm Emanuel: City must take another bite out of costs at Taste

Taste Chicago has new size new look this year Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Taste of Chicago has a new size and new look this year in Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:31AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday demanded another round of cost-cutting at Taste of Chicago after last year’s shrunken, revamped and bumped Taste lost $1.3 million, $300,000 more than the year before.

“I told the team at Cultural Affairs to re-think [the Taste]. Attendance was up. Revenue was up. The problem is, costs were up. And I said, ‘We have to come down on that,’” Emanuel said.

“There were pop-up restaurants. There were new types of restaurants offered. They’re gonna have to think through how we do that. ... Cultural Affairs is looking at this and will come back with different plans, as they did last year.”

To reverse $1 million in losses in 2011 alone, Emanuel cut last year’s 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.

But, it wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding.

The 2012 Taste lost $1.3 million, up from $1 million the year before, even though daily attendance and spending was up and individual restaurants saw their highest profit margins in five years.

On Wednesday, Emanuel never mentioned the possibility of getting rid of the Taste. But, he hinted strongly that a sophisticated city now known as a culinary capital of the world may have outgrown it.

“Chicago is a different city than it was when we [started] Taste of Chicago. We now have Gourmet Chicago. We’re hosting internationally 30 countries around the world that are coming to participate. Why? Because Chicago [isn’t] what it was ten years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago when it comes to culinary. We are a culinary capital of the world — not the country,” he said.

“More of our chefs now are known worldwide. People fly in for our restaurants.. ... So while you have Taste of Chicago that is going through a revision and change, so is Chicago’s image as a culinary capital.”

Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone could not be reached to explain what changes she plans to make in response to the mayor’s renewed mandate to turn things around.

Last fall, she warned aldermen that the shrunken and revamped Taste didn’t come close to breaking even and said it may not be possible to erase all of the red ink at an event that was once a cash cow that bankrolled the city’s other music festivals.

“It’s very difficult to find a financial model that creates profitability for a free festival,” Boone said then.

“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.”

Asked then about Emanuel’s break-even edict, Boone said, “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. ...We would like to minimize the cost to taxpayers as much as possible. Whether or not you can have a break-even point for Taste, we’re still learning.”

Boone said then — and City Hall reiterated Wednesday — that 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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