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Then and Now: Taste of Chicago

The 33rd annual Taste of Chicago is right around the corner, so let’s take a look at how this iconic event began in 1980 and grew remarkably rapidly into its current form.

Then, 1980: Instant success, rapid growth

A group of ambitious restaurateurs came to Mayor Jane Byrne in the summer of 1980 with the idea of food festival in Chicago on the Fourth of July, confident that they could draw 75,000 – 100,000 people downtown on the holiday. Plans were made, a budget of $150,000 was drawn, and everyone got more than they bargained for when a whopping 250,000 Chicagoans showed up for the festivities!  The iconic Taste of Chicago was born that hot July afternoon, and it was an instant success.  

The original 1980 Taste took place on the flourishing North Michigan Avenue between Ohio Street and the Chicago River, but the very next year it was moved to Grant Park to accommodate the crowds. It has remained there ever since, and throughout the 80’s and 90’s it grew at a rapid pace from a one-day food festival into something much more:

  • 1984-5: Live entertainment added in ‘84 and majorly expanded in ‘85, due in part to Mayor Harold Washington’s discontinuation of another annual music festival, ChicagoFest
  • 1987-8: Taste of Chicago continued its rapid expansion to an eight day duration in ’87, then ten in ’88 along with 80 food vendors, causing Phil Vettel of the Tribune and other journalists to wonder where it will stop: “…if this expansion keeps up, Taste quickly could evolve into a month-long festival.”
  • 1991-9: Taste broke its own records over and over again throughout the 90’s, drawing over 300 vendor applications for the 77 spots available and over 3 million attendees annually
  • 2006: Highest attendance ever recorded, 3.6 million people

Now, 2013: Revamping the Taste of Chicago

Three decades later, the Taste of Chicago has solidified its place as the most iconic of all “Taste-of” festivals across the nation, and it is still a must-see event if you’re in the city. However, with the great recession and the city’s financial woes, Taste of Chicago witnessed a decrease in festival attendance and production since its peak in 2006, inciting some significant reforms:

  • 2009-12: Attendance declined to 3.35 million by ’09, then further to 2.65 million by ’10 and only 1.2 million recorded last year in ‘12
  • 2012: Mayor Rahm Emanuel reduced the festival length from ten days to five and introduced a reimagined Taste
  • 2012: New “Pop-up” restaurants and special celebrity “Chef du Jour” events introduced
  • 2013: New headliners including Jill Scott, fun., and Neon Trees; expansion of “Pop-up” and “Chef du Jour” programs; eleven new participating restaurants this year

In step with Mayor Emanuel, it seems that the city has placed its bets this year that quality, not quantity, will revitalize the Taste of Chicago. With the expansion of the new “Chef du Jour” program from 2012, Chicagoans or tourists who purchased $40 tickets will have the opportunity to sit down and be served a three-course meal by a celebrity chef. And with the continuation of the “Pop-up Restaurants” concept from last year—a rotation of a select number of restaurants within the event, each popping up for a day or two—organizers hope to keep things fresh and exciting throughout the event, with seven of the eleven brand-new participants in the Taste featured as “Pop-ups.”

Update: According to the city, Taste of Chicago 2013's attendance demonstrated growth from 2012, drawing an estimated 1.5 million in five days (opposed to 1.2 million last year)



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