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Taste of Chicago turned 1st profit in six years

The  Taste Chicago turned profit 2013 for first time six years. | Sun-Times

The Taste of Chicago turned a profit in 2013 for the first time in six years. | Sun-Times

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 Taste of Chicago revenue

Updated: October 30, 2013 6:41AM

Taste of Chicago turned a profit in 2013 for the first time in six years — thanks to a recipe that included perfect weather, a popular music lineup, celebrity chefs and food trucks — turning Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s revised, bumped and abbreviated format into a keeper.

One year after losing $1.3 million, the Taste made $272,000. That’s a nearly $1.6 million turnaround in just one year for a lakefront showcase that, some feared, was headed for the scrap heap.

“It’s a better event. We worked with the layout. We added new features. There’s a lot more to explore. It’s not the same old Taste. It’s new. There are more dining options,” Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone said Friday.

“Chicagoans have become more sophisticated in the way they experience food. The addition of the pop-up booths, chef-du-jour tents and food trucks. There’s a lot more to experience. And the main stage performers were some of the best. They were a big draw. It reinforces to us that Chicagoans and visitors still value Taste of Chicago. It’s still relevant and still a great way to experience Chicago’s restaurant scene.”

Only a year ago, escalating losses prompted Boone to warn that Taste of Chicago may never return to profitability. That’s even though it once was a cash cow that supported other major festivals.

Asked whether the one-year turn-around solidifies the Taste’s future, she said, “Based on what happened in 2013, we’re prepared to move forward. As long as the event continues to demonstrate that it is a good investment of taxpayer dollars, an efficient way to market Chicago restaurants, a vehicle for drawing tourists and a priority for the mayor, we will continue.”

Emanuel said the Taste is a “great event” with a “far-reaching impact” on Chicago and he’s pleased the changes he ordered stopped the bleeding.

“We revamped the Taste to bring new food options, including food trucks, internationally-renowned chefs and music from chart-topping acts to attract people from all over the world,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

To reverse $1 million in losses in 2011 alone, Emanuel cut the Taste—from 10 days to five—and bumped it to mid-July from its prime position around July 4.

The number of restaurants was reduced. So-called “pop-up” restaurants that had never before participated were allowed to get in on the Taste for just one day without paying the $3,000 application fee, in exchange for 20 percent of their revenues. Five-day participants pay the fee and share 18 percent of their revenues with the city.

Celebrity chefs 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.

To skeptics, it looked like the new mayor was preparing to wash his hands of an event that had become a drain on taxpayers and suffered security problems.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded.

Attendance rose by 300,000 in 2013 — to 1.5 million — generating $5.7 million from the sale of food and beverage tickets, up from $4.1 million the year before.

The celebrity chef tent pulled in $30,000.

A marquee music lineup that included Robin Thicke, former Led Zepellin star Robert Plant, Jill Scott and Fun generated $338,000 in concert revenues, with 16 food trucks, five-per-night, selling their culinary creations to Petrillo patrons. Last year’s lineup that featured Jennifer Hudson and Death Cab for Cutie generated $255,450 in ticket sales.

A market research firm that surveyed 450 patrons and collected information from hotels and businesses pegged the economic impact of Taste at $106 million, including $2.35 million in local tax revenue.

In all, 59 percent of Taste patrons were from outside the city, and 74 percent of them cited the event as their primary reason for coming to Chicago. They spent an average of $46-a-day outside the Taste.

Shortly after Emanuel took office, Boone said she wanted “one last crack at reimagining” the Taste “before any decision about the future” of the event was made. She argued that it was time to go “beyond the cheesecake on a stick and barbecued turkey leg” and make the event a bit more high-brow.

After enduring one year of escalating losses, the revamped event that many Chicagoans still view as a summer highlight appears to have turned the corner. But, that doesn’t mean Boone is done re-inventing the Taste.

“We’re always looking for ways to strengthen and improve the event. The staff is really creative. We continue to talk to restaurants and solicit feedback from patrons. Are we ready to reveal any of that today? No, but stay tuned. We’re working on it,” Boone said.

“If anything, we may beef up family-friendly entertainment and provide more programming for kids.”

Three 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.

To reverse $7 million in festival losses over the last three years - and absorb a $2 million cut in Daley’s final budget - the city handed the Taste off to the Park District and folded the city’s four least-popular music festivals into the Taste. The experiment was a bust.

The 2014 Taste will be held July 9 to 13 in Grant Park.


Twitter: @fspielman

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