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Illinois Restaurant Association wants to run Taste of Chicago

Taste Chicago. | Keith Hale ~ Sun-Times File Photo

Taste of Chicago. | Keith Hale ~ Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: March 6, 2012 7:47PM



The Illinois Restaurant Association decided Tuesday to enter the competition to manage food and beverage operations at this year’s revamped and shrunken Taste of Chicago in hopes of salvaging the premier summer event it founded.

“It’s going to be tough. That’s why we made the decision to bid. We wanted to make sure the association was lending its expertise in this transitional year to help the city, if they choose to use us,” said association president Sheila O’Grady, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s longest-serving chief-of-staff.

O’Grady was asked whether Chicago’s premier summer event could be salvaged — and returned to the cash-cow it once was — or whether this year’s five-day Taste in mid-July might be the city’s last.

“It’s the largest outdoor food event in the world. It’s been copied all over the globe. It’s why there’s a Taste of Abu Dhabi and a Taste of Edinborough. It all started here,” she said.

“We are very hopeful the new plan is successful and we’re willing to do whatever we can to make that happen. Is it possible the Taste could keep changing? Yes, but change is a good thing. The department [of Cultural Affairs and Special Events] is committed to switching things up and making improvements. I respect them for doing that. I hope 2012 is the year the event can turn the corner financially.”

But, she said, “In order to do that, it’s important for people to be excited about all the events and come out and support them. Family programming and entertainment [are essential], especially on weekends.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration announced in December that Taste of Chicago would be cut in half — from ten days to five — and bumped to July 11 to 15 from its prime position around July 4th weekend.

The move — and the decision to put the management contract out to bid — was aimed at reversing $7 million in losses over a three-year period that Chicago taxpayers can no longer afford to subsidize.

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.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that Chicago restaurants were not exactly chomping at the bit to participate in the revised Taste.

Only 40 restaurants applied to participate for the full five-days, prompting City Hall to extend the deadline.

An invitation to 200 restaurants that had never before participated in the Taste triggered a dozen applications to become so-called “Pop Up” restaurants for just one day. That’s a special feature 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.



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