The Taste of Chicago is one of the biggest food festivals in the U.S. and the world. It first began in 1980 as an idea among several Chicago restaurant owners, and the city held its first food festival as a one day event with 36 food vendors. About 275,000 people showed up for this outdoor event.
Since then, it has grown to an attendance in excess of 3.5 million and more than $12 million in revenue over 10 days (June 29 - July 8, 2007). The Mayor’s Office of Special Events in Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association work together to plan and execute this food festival.
Whether large food festival like the Taste or a smaller version of the same, planning community festivals is a significant responsibility for government event planners. And the Taste of Chicago is a great case study for any community considering a similar program. Primary functional areas include:
- Food Vendors
- Marketing/Public Relations
- Accounting/Contract Management
For anyone approaching this type of event for the first time or those considering an expansion to an existing festival, it’s important to begin planning one year before your event. The Mayor’s Office of Special Events follows a rough schedule:
- 12 Months: Identify location, dates and rough sketch of festival map. Involve relevant city agencies every step of the way.
- 9 Months: Update festival map and begin functional area RFPs.
- 6 Months: Confirm vendors, sponsors, programming and suppliers.
- 4 Months: Finalize entertainment and re-confirm functional area.
- 3 Months: Produce festival marketing materials.
- 1 Week: Manage operations load-in.
- 1 Day: Manage vendor load-in.
- Event Conclusion: Manage operations load-out.
- 1 Week After: Hold wrap-up meeting and make recommendations.
As a government agency, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events is in charge of the Taste and a long list of other events along Chicago’s lakefront, neighborhood festivals and other areas. The Taste is unique in Chicago because it’s a free event, but revenue from the Taste pays for the majority of all other events managed by this office.
With food festival management experience that dates back to 1980, most of the functional teams in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and Illinois Restaurant Association are highly experienced in their areas. This allows Mary Slowik, general manager for the Taste of Chicago, to focus on planning and execution efforts of all parties involved and keep the event on track. Slowik has been with the Taste for 20 years.
In addition to members of the office, the general manager works with at least 20 different city offices and agencies, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Police Department
- Fire Department
- Department of Health
- Streets and Sanitation
- Park District
- Office of Emergency Management Communications
Another important functional area part of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events is accounting/contract management. Being a government event, it is highly structured procurement process, and all agreements must follow city guidelines.
The operations area is responsible for site-preparation, stage and production, event support, security and more. It requires many pre-event meetings, and the operations team is closely tied to the layout of the event map.
It makes a big difference to involve all of the city agencies early in the process, according to John Trick, operations manager for the Taste, who has been with the event for 19 years. The operations team manages processes for the following:
- Pre-event load-in (setup)
- Operations during the event
- Post-event load-out (tear down)