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Taste Of Chicago, Summer Fests Slashing Fees, Offering Incentives To Lure Restaurants Struggling With Staff Shortages

Without enough staff, restaurants are opting out of fests. The city's summer fests are offering stipends, ending tickets and finding workers to help more vendors participate.

The City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events hosts a Pop-Up Taste Of Englewood, neighborhood food festival in Chicago’s West Englewood community, featuring live entertainment, DJ's, dancing, arts and crafts and vendors selling a variety of food; July, 2021.
DCASE Chicago

CITYWIDE — Chicago’s summer festivals are seeing fewer restaurants signing up as vendors as staff shortages continue to ravage the hospitality industry.

In an effort to attract more vendors, Taste of Chicago, the city’s most recognized and largest food festival, slashed fees, ended its longtime ticketing system and is offering stipends to participate in mini-fests to the neighborhoods. At Taste of Randolph, a West Loop street fest, organizers even helped vendors find staff to work the fest.

Ahead of this year’s Taste, programmer Neal Heitz said they planned with staffing shortages and supply chain issues in mind, creating a “bite-sized” event bringing 30-35 vendors Downtown instead of the 50 vendors the fest featured in years past.

“It’s about all anybody can chew,” Heitz said of restaurants’ struggles.

For vendors participating in the Grant Park fest, organizers slashed fees — $1,000 for a fest spot instead of the $3,000 it’s cost in years past. The price includes a tent, chairs, electricity, ice and propane, which vendors used to have to pay for separately.

Organizers did away with the Taste’s longtime ticketing system, too. Now, instead of buying tickets through the event organizers to redeem at food stalls for food, festival goers will pay food vendors directly.

“This allows the vendors to be [enticed] because they are going to be able to keep all of their profits,” Heitz said.

Fest organizers also looked at the strategies that worked in 2021 to boost Taste participation, Heitz said.

As Chicago continued to struggle with COVID-19 last summer, Taste of Chicago organizers decided to launch pop-up events in several neighborhoods like Pullman, Austin and Englewood in addition the fest Downtown. They also offered $500 stipends to food trucks and $1,000 to food vendors to offset costs, while also providing chairs and tables.

“We had great crowds, our food vendors sold out of many items,” Heitz said.

Organizers are again offering the cash stipends for vendors participating in the Taste neighborhood pop-up events.

First-time Taste vendor Lorene Devaroe, owner of The Sole Ingredient Catering, said she was convinced to submit an application because of the new benefits the Taste is offering. The biggest selling point was the direct payment to vendors, Devaroe said.

“That was all attractive to me. The lower cost, the stipend, the fact that they eliminated the tickets and we can charge whatever we want for as long as we have that taste option,” Devaroe said.

Ms Tittle’s Cupcakes, a Chicago-based dessert food truck, has participated in the Taste of Chicago since 2014. Owner Denita Tittle said the $500 stipend Taste organizers are offering is a game changer.

“It definitely helped the fact that you knew you could kind of pay for your products upfront because you never know [these events] may turn out. That was a big help,” Tittle said.

Credit: DCASE Chicago
2019 Taste of Chicago in Grant Park, July 2019.

In June, the Taste of Randolph returned to the West Loop after a two-year hiatus bringing 14 food vendors and more than 30 live musical acts to two stages. The event organized by the West Loop Community Organization and Star Events was a success, board member Julie Darling said, but little know about the whirlwind it took to stage the fest this year.

“The thing that’s so heartbreaking for me is that restaurants that wanted to participate couldn’t because they didn’t have the bandwidth,” Darling said.

Early on, Darling said she knew restaurants would be wary of committing to a festival. Vendors who had participated in years past suddenly had to decide between staffing the festival or staffing their restaurants.

Mad Social, a popular spot in the West Loop, was one of those restaurants, owner Anthony Stefani said. All of his restaurants are so short staffed that he’s unable to participate in a majority of festivals this year, he said.

“Pre-COVID we used to participate in as many festivals as we could … but we’re stretched so thin and everybody’s already on over time that we’re just not really able to execute them,” Stefani said.

Bar Goa, Black Barrel and Gino & Marty’s were able to commit after Darling matched vendors with temporary workers from the staffing service Cara Connects, she said.

Gino Bartucci, owner of Gino & Marty’s, was matched with three workers for the Taste of Randolph. Two of the workers were trained chefs who helped with food preparation during the three-day event. Bartucci was so impressed with them that he said he plans to offer them jobs at Gino & Marty’s, 844 W Randolph St., which hasn’t yet opened to the public, he said.

“It’s hard to find staff to actually work in the restaurant much less an extracurricular activity like the [fest] … being the new kid on the block, not having a full commercial setup that was local and doing it for my first time, I couldn’t have done it without Julie,” Bartucci said.

Bar Goa, an Indian gastropub in the West Loop, was matched with two people for the festival, both worked the register and took customer orders. Owner Manish Mallic said without the additional help he would not have been able to participate. Like Bertucci, Mallic is also planning to hire one of the workers.

Darling said it’s unknown if this year’s solutions will be able to fix the problems restaurants face next year. But a hospitality training program for West Loop restaurants would offer a longterm solution to staffing woes.

“We can’t go through what we went through this year next year,” Darling said.

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