Food festivals combine two wonderful ideas: festivals and food. When you throw in music, how can you go wrong.
Taste of Chicago is one of the earliest food festivals, and one of the largest. But like other city run festivals across the country, the Taste of Chicago is in financial trouble. And there were some overblown incidents that has sparked fear in the festival. There was talk about charging to get into the festival; the solution — the city got rid of the music.
But here is the issue. The Taste of Chicago hasn't been all that cool, even with the food, for some time. And the city stopped the major July 3 fireworks display, staring in 2010. The music is what kept the festival going; if the Taste has to rely on just the food, there is significant trouble.
There is an intermediary step once you are there before you can buy the food: paying for the tickets. Can't buy food without the tickets. This increases the cost of the festival since you need to employ people to run the ticket booths. But the restaurants themselves save time by taking tickets instead of money.
And while the festival has been "free," there has been a charge incorporated into the tickets.
The perception of the food at the Taste is that the food is expensive. Even though the restaurants offer Taste portions (smaller portions for fewer tickets), the perception is that financially, the festival isn't worthwhile.
Now in the last few years, the financial crisis certainly affects perception, but that perception existed before the financial meltdown.
If you are a first-time participant in the Taste, and bring the kind of money required to truly enjoy the festival, then you'll be in great shape. And perhaps some of the jaded mentality stems from those who live here who see the same booths year after year.
Even in good times, the Taste of Chicago is known as being overcrowded with enough strollers to risk your calves in just enough heat and humidity to almost make you want to pass out. Yet the festival draws huge crowds each year.
The Taste of Chicago factors in the schmaltz value: deep dish pizza, turkey legs, fried dough, cheesecake. And there is time for schmaltz, but the price for schmaltz shouldn't be as high.
Somehow, a food festival, a festival that celebrates food, should be easy to do, wide access to food, and fun. Whether this is true of Taste of Chicago might lie in the eye of the beholder.
Cash makes a festival much easier to access even on a smaller level. When you have to purchase 10 tickets at a time, and you feel the obvious need to use all your tickets, this removes the casual user from the festival. The festival is well-suited for hardcore users. Want a little sample of the Taste? Try to buy someone's extra tickets.
If we were doing Taste of Boston or San Francisco or New Orleans or Cincinnati, we probably would appreciate a sampling of tastes throughout the city in one place, even if some of those places are so stereotypical. But the Taste of (fill in the blank) needs to appeal to those who live there, well beyond just the tourists.
The Taste of Chicago should be able to survive the loss of fireworks and big musical acts, but only if the food is worthwhile and of value to citizens and tourists alike. The festival has a long road to accomplish this balance; it has to be all about the food.