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Same recipe for next year’s Taste of Chicago: Shorter and remixed

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

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

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:08AM

The shrunken and revamped Taste of Chicago will return for another five-day engagement in 2013 — complete with a $25 fee for concert seats at the Petrillo bandshell and $40 sit-down meals prepared by a celebrity “chef-du-jour.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration nailed down those details Friday after touting the four million combined attendance at Chicago’s six premier free summer festivals: Taste of Chicago, Blues, Jazz, Gospel Fests, the Air and Water Show and the Millennium Park Music Series.

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.

By shrinking, bumping and revamping the Taste and charging for concert seats that previously were free, some people feared Emanuel was trying to kill the premier summer festival that had become a drain on Chicago taxpayers.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded.

“We feel that the five-day model worked very well and that is what we are looking to do in 2013,” said Kathleen Strand, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

“We are still in the early planning stages but, I can confirm … that we will be repeating the new policy of selling concert seating at the Taste and the Celebrity Chef du Jour next year because they were successful” with no change in those fees.

The decision to stay the course is not surprising.

Emanuel took his daughter to an opening night concert by Jennifer Hudson, walked around to sample the food and proclaimed on the day after the Taste ended that he had developed a blueprint for how to stage a popular summer event without breaking the bank.

“It’s one of the best-attended we ever had. … The attendance was up. The participation was up. The restaurateurs liked it. The people I met — close to about 400 of ‘em — all were positive about it,” Emanuel said at the time..

“The specialty chef tent was a huge success, as was the pop-up [restaurant] booths that were very well-attended and also extremely successful. ... In past years, we lost money. In past years, it hadn’t been done different. And we had to rethink it. ... There’s a lot going on in Chicago. It’s the culinary capital of the world. We have some of the leading chefs in the world. We came up with a model at the tent of the specialty chefs that was sold out. ... If you’re sold out, you expand it.”

The $25 concert tickets played to mixed results.

Although there were plenty of people on the lawn, none of the five concerts sold out. Hudson had 1,190 pre-sales, 453 walk-ups and 1,357 unsold seats that either remained empty or were distributed to sponsors. The Michael Franti & Spearhead/ Fitz & the Tantrums concert had 1,665 unsold seats. For Chaka Khan, there were 1,623 pre-sales, 757 walk-ups and 569 unsold seats.

The three-course, sit down meals for $40 prepared by a “Celebrity chef-du-jour” played to a 150-person capacity every day except the last, when 135 tickets were sold. The remaining seats were given to students from Washburne Culinary Institute who helped prepare the meals.

Overall, attendance was 1.2 million or an average of 240,000 for each of the five days.

That’s up 5,000-a-day from last year’s draw of 2.35 million over five days, which was down 11 percent from 2010 and 37.5 percent from the event’s 2006 and 2007 heyday.

Restaurant revenues for the 2012 Taste were unknown.

Last year, 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.

This year’s Taste was run by City Hall.

In a press release Friday touting the combined, four million summer festival attendance, city officials disclosed that food and beverage sales at the three-day Blues Fest staged in picture-perfect weather rose by 26 percent while ticket sales increased by $157,508.

More than two million people jammed the lakefront for the Air and Water Show.

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