Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM
So Mayor Rahm Emanuel is going to “ask core questions” about how to improve the Taste of Chicago after this year’s poor attendance and evaporating profits.
That is just so sad. You and I, in the next five minutes, can cook up enough fresh ideas to guarantee Taste 2012 will be the biggest and best ever. It’s easy. Ready? Then let’s begin:
1. The Last Taste: Nothing spurs people into action like the idea of tradition ending. Announce that 2012 will be the Final Taste. “The LAST TASTE EVER!” Your last chance to enjoy Jane Byrne-era joys. Remember how panicky mobs gathered in front of the Berghoff when the restaurant pretended it was shutting down? The mayor can always reverse the decision later, just like the Berghoff did. Claim he was swayed by the outpouring of support.
2. Bring in Ringers: For people who actually eat in restaurants, the Taste offers nothing — the chance to lap something off a plastic plate in the broiling sun while paying more than they would to eat the same thing from china sitting inside. Gosh, thanks. How to reel in those Chicagoans? What if there were a section of restaurants from other cities? A little Taste of Milwaukee or Taste of St. Louis ghetto within the Taste? (Yes, it’s Taste of Chicago, but we’re supposed to be a global city, remember?) Many who wouldn’t set foot in Taste would make a beeline there for a Reuben roll from Mader’s or some Ted Drewes frozen custard.
3. Lick of Lottery: Ever buy a soda at a convenience store? Ever notice the big line of people waiting to play Lotto? Picture this: Slap an extra dollar on a sheet of Taste tickets, plus a stub to fill out. At the end of each day, all those extra dollars go to a lucky winner (minus, heh-heh, city carrying costs). That winner returns the next day to be King or Queen of the Taste, to sit on a big throne, guzzling free food and drink, then waddle home with an enormous check. People who don’t care if they eat dog food would show up for a shot at that, plus thousands more will hang around, eating away until day’s end, just to see if they win.
4. Designate the Profits: The city makes money on Taste, the city loses money — who cares? But what if the profits from Taste went to a specific, pre-established recipient? Say new fire trucks. Use somber, we-need-a-truck firefighters to plug Taste. Suddenly snarfing up cheese fries in the hot sun is a moral act.
5. Taste-to-Go: With profits going to a tangible goal, even cosseted executives will want to help out, though of course without expending the effort required to leave their offices and go stand on Columbus Drive and eat a pickle on a stick. Satisfy their desire to do good painlessly by letting them sign up online for Taste-to-Go, a box lunch that costs, oh, $15 and is brought to their office on a certain day, a box of cold salads and fresh muffins and fruit and whatever. I’d buy that. I bet you would too.
6. The Protest Stage: You ever pass through Daley Plaza when some honked-off group is venting its displeasure? Buses line up around the block, disgorging upset people by the thousand. Set up a protest area at Taste, invite the infinite corps of the irate, give each group an hour to wave signs and make its litany of grievances known to a captive audience. Nothing works up an appetite like complaining — plus organizers can use the lure of the Taste to fill those buses. Everybody wins.
7. The Pie Zone: It’s an expensive pain to open a booth at Taste. But what if restaurants could participate merely by supplying pies to a central pie booth? Everybody loves pie. I might even go to Taste if I could get a slice of Sarah Stegner’s sour cherry pie — she could sell slices for $5, which is 50 percent less than they cost at Prairie Grass, but then it will be a smaller slice. Imagine: Rahm Emanuel v. Ed Burke in a pie eating contest — no hands allowed! The entire city would turn out for that.
That’s the problem with Taste. We’ve lost our imagination. Get it back, make it fun, then hire a publicist to press Taste of Chicago moist towelettes on the media, talking up the event ahead of time. Put Taste back on the radar. I can’t buy a doughnut without writing a column about it, yet I’ve never heard from anybody at the city about Taste. If the city can’t make Taste of Chicago work, what can it do?