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CHICAGO (STMW) – From a security standpoint, this year’s Taste of Chicago was a rousing success. From a sales and attendance standpoint, it was a flop.
While officials did not release hard numbers Tuesday, city officials and Taste vendors acknowledged the number of visitors to the city’s biggest annual festival was down, as were ticket sales for some vendors. The Park District, which ran the fest this year, said it lost money.
And Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city is going to take a look at the 31-year old chowfest, even though he vowed to keep it going in the future.
“We’ll ask some core questions,’’ Emanuel said Tuesday, two days after the Taste ended. “ … We will ask questions about how to do it better, but not [about] whether we should” continue to hold it.
Charles Robinson the owner and founder of Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs — long a top seller at the Taste — said his sales had dropped 30 to 40 percent. He’ll be lucky if he breaks even this year, he said.
“It’s hard to be out there 10 days and not make any money,” Robinson told the Sun-Times Tuesday. “We’re not out there just to get our name out, we’re out there to make money. If we break even, we’ll be lucky this year.”
Last year, he made nearly $300,000, but he estimates this year his sales only hit $200,000.
Robinson said reduced hours, the lack of big-name entertainment and no fireworks show on July 3rd — along with a still-lagging economy — all contributed to the poor turn-out.
“The most important thing that happened was the lack of entertainment, closing down early and not letting people in until 11 a.m.,” Robinson said. The Taste also ended at 8:30 p.m. nightly, a half-hour earlier than previous years — and 6 p.m. on Sunday, which took some by surprise, he said.
Other food vendors shared similar stories.
At the tent run by Bobak Sausage Co., 5275 S. Archer, sales were down almost by half over last year. Chef German Alvarado believes there was an increase in foot traffic, but said that did not translate into greater sales. And Lynn Sapp, owner of Original Rainbow Cone, 9233 S. Western, said foot traffic was up over last year but she expected sales to be down when the final figures were tallied.
Robinson said the event should be handed over to a private firm to run — an idea that was discussed but rejected by former Mayor Richard M. Daley as he sought to reverse $7 million in festival losses over three years. City Hall ultimately rejected a proposal to charge a $10 admission fee to the event.
“I’m game personally for Taste of Chicago charging a fee to get in and bringing in the right kind of entertainment to the event,” Robinson said. “It might be good to have it privatized and make it a win-win, make it good for the company [running it] as well as the vendors. I think it could be very successful and it could be what it was at one point.”
At its peak, the Taste — which started in 1980 — drew 3.6 million visitors in 2006 and 2007. But last year, after the July 3rd fireworks show at Grant Park was canceled, it drew just 2.65 million people.
Some city officials this week privately questioned whether having fewer attractions to draw people to the Taste, coupled with recent high-profile attacks downtown, could have kept people away in droves.
Still, there were some bright spots. Emanuel on Tuesday congratulated newly-appointed Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on the nearly 50 percent drop in arrests and a 20 percent reduction in citations for soliciting, panhandling and peddling without a license. There also wasn’t a single incident involving illegal weapons.
Emanuel said the summer festival will live on, but possibly with some changes.
“The Taste Chicago is a positive for the city. When I went through and walked two Saturdays ago, I met people from England, people from Australia, people from Ohio, Canada, Oklahoma, North Carolina, people from the suburbs all coming to Chicago experiencing Chicago, seeing the best of Chicago. I want that to continue,” Emanuel said. “It doesn’t mean we still do it the same way we’ve done it.’’
The new mayor was non-committal when asked whether he would someday be able to find the money to restore the city’s July 3rd fireworks extravaganza.
“I’m not a soothsayer, so I can’t tell you the future,” he said. “We’ll always evaluate. … Is this the best way to do it? Can we do it better? What can we do to improve? I can’t tell you what the future will bring.”
Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a park district spokeswoman, said the new family-friendly Taste received rave reviews from some.
“We had so many people come to us, saying I haven’t been here in five to 10 years, that’s been great,” Maxey-Faulkner said.
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