PHOTOS: Taste of Chicago features renewed focus on restaurants
By Carolyn Walkup July 3, 2012 1:29PM
Instead of taking place around the Fourth of July holiday as in past years, the 2012 Taste of Chicago will take place from July 11-15. | File photo
TASTE OF CHICAGO
◆ 11 a.m.-9 p.m. July 11-15
◆ Grant Park,
337 E. Randolph St., Chicago
◆ Admission, free
◆ Food and beverages require ticket purchase, strip of 12 is $8
Updated: August 23, 2012 9:55AM
From Chicago’s ever-popular pizza and ribs to gourmet fare, the recast and downsized Taste of Chicago has it all.
There also is a renewed focus on the event’s original mission: to showcase Chicago’s restaurants.
With new dates of July 11-15 instead of around the Fourth of July holiday, city officials said they hope to attract attendees who come primarily to enjoy the restaurant food for which Chicago has become widely known.
This fest also will cost the city less in security and other expenses, especially without the July 3 crowds coming to view nearby fireworks.
“We think it’s going to be a wonderful Taste of Chicago this year,” said Mary Slowik, who is managing the Taste for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
“We feel that the shorter number of days will be equally as impactful as the 10-day run.”
Taste attendance reportedly declined by 11 percent in 2011, a drop of 25 percent from 2006 and 2007. The festival ran a $2.7 million operating deficit during the last three years.
Longtime vendor Connie’s Pizza is one of 36 returning vendors (there were 73 applicants for 2012). In 2011, there were 57 vendors.
“The Taste was very big for a while; we did a quarter of a million dollars in business,” Connie’s co-owner Mike Stolfe said, noting 35 percent of that was on July 3 when Connie’s sold some 10,000 pizzas between 4 and 8 p.m.
“Profitability-wise, it could be good. Before, it was a long stretch and a lot of labor and other costs, but a lot of revenue as well. When I worked it during high school, 12 straight days was tough,” Stolfe said.
“I have worked there since I could stand up when Jane Byrne was mayor and every year since then,” Stolfe said. “Whenever there is a Taste of Chicago, Connie’s will be a part of it.”
Connie’s will serve its traditional items of deep-dish cheese pizza, deep-dish sausage pizza, mini meatball sandwiches and chocolate-covered bananas.
Pat Looney, co-owner of the Abbey Pub and another longtime Taste participant, agreed with Stolfe that the shorter days should be easier for the vendors, especially in keeping up the food quality.
“We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “Five days will be better on me mentally. The only problem is if it rains a couple of days.”
Looney added that a good selection of bands should help to drive customers to the food vendors.
Roasted corn on the cob is the Abbey Pub’s best seller, followed by Irish-style fish and chips, Irish egg rolls (stuffed with corned beef and cabbage) and fries with Irish curry sauce.
No matter how sales turn out, the visibility of being in the Taste is good for promoting his restaurant, Looney said.
John Meyer, chef-owner of BJ’s Market & Bakery, will participate for the 13th year.
“It was a little slower than normal the last few years,” he said.
“This year there is an opportunity to make more money in five days than in 10 days, but it’s possible to go either way. I’m optimistic.”
BJ’s again will feature its popular mustard-fried catfish and peach cobbler, plus chicken tenders and house-made sweet potato chips.
Also cautiously optimistic about potential results of 2012’s event is Marc Malnati, co-owner of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria restaurants.
“I think it’s a can’t miss,” he said, due to the city’s attraction to visitors from all over. Less competition from other vendors also should work in Malnati’s favor, he said.
“It’s only five days, so we have to lower our expectations a little bit,” Malnati said.
His company has been a Taste vendor every year except the first two, and this year will serve its signature cheese pizza, sausage pizza and bruschetta.
New vendors representing more diverse cuisine will participate this year as one-day pop-up restaurants, a new venture curated by WTTW-TV (Channel 11)’s “Check, Please!” program.
“They are neighborhood gems that would not normally be able to participate in the entire Taste,” Slowik said.
Three different pop-up restaurants will sell items for a day for the same number of tickets as the daily vendors.
Foods these restaurants will serve range from massaman beef with rice from Arun’s, Korean pork barbecue from Jin Ju and crab cake sliders (spun tofu and seasonings) from Karyn’s on Green, a vegan restaurant.
Karyn Calabrese said she hopes having a booth at the Taste will “spread the message about vegan eating and how good the food tastes. You can be more than satisfied if you are not eating meat,” she said.
Her customers have commented that Taste items such as BBQ seitan sliders taste like pulled pork, and tofu “chicken legs” look and taste similar to chicken.
She’ll also serve her chopped vegetable salad with herb dressing.
Taste-goers looking for healthful foods will find options from both the pop-up and the regular vendors who offer some items endorsed by the Humana Healthier Choices program with a red apple on the menu board.
Celebrity Chef du Jour is another new feature for 2012.
A new dining area with air-conditioned tents will serve three-course dinners or lunches from five locally famous chefs with prepaid $40 tickets.
The chefs are Carlos Gaytan, of Mexique; Tony Mantuano, of Spiaggia; Graham Elliot, of Graham Elliot and Grahamwich; Stephanie Izard, of Girl and the Goat; and Jimmy Bannos, of Heaven on Seven.
Many of these chef meals are sold-out, but individual dishes from each chef will be available at his or her respective vendor tent.
Other well-known Chicago chefs will be doing cooking demonstrations throughout the Taste.
“We are all very excited about the new Taste and hope to attract repeat and new audiences as well,” Slowik said.
“We want everyone to come and experience the whole atmosphere.”
Carolyn Walkup is a local freelance writer.
TASTE OF CHICAGO POP-UP RESTAURANT SCHEDULE
Fourteen restaurants will participate as pop-up restaurants at Taste of Chicago.
The new program was designed to provide restaurants with a one-day opportunity to participate in the festival, without the cost and time of staffing a booth for five days.
All five days of the Taste will feature a new set of restaurants on the east side of Columbus Drive, just south of Jackson Boulevard.
Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont Ave.)
Jin Ju (5203 N. Clark St.)
Marie’s Pizza (4127-4129 W. Lawrence Ave.)
Inspiration Kitchen (4715 N. Sheridan Road)
Riva (Navy Pier, 700 E. Grand Ave.)
Tre Kronor (3258 W. Foster Ave.)
Cafe Trinidad (557 E. 75th St.)
Garifuna Flava Caribbean Restaurant (2516-18 W. 63rd St.)
LM Restaurant (4539 N. Lincoln Ave.)
Austrian Bakery (2523 N. Clark St.)
Garifuna Flava Caribbean Restaurant (2516-18 W. 63rd St.)
The Nile Restaurant (1611 E. 55th St.)
Caffe Gelato (2034 W. Division St.)
Chicago Raw (131 N. Clinton St.)
Karyn’s on Green (130 S. Green St.)