When Taste of Chicago returns to Grant Park from July 10 to 14, the festival will feature 82 food vendors which is nine more than 2018. This is the 39th edition of the Taste, and this year city officials added 37 new vendors with a focus on international cuisine. Officials from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said they want to better showcase Chicago’s diversity, as it’s been the subject of many pieces in recent years.
One of those stories appeared in Eater which pondered why the city didn’t better utilize the festival to spotlight restaurants on the South and West sides, as well as restaurants owned by people of color. The city agreed, with officials citing the story as motivation to send out more staff to knock on doors to recruit chefs. They even held a workshop at the Chicago Cultural Center and invited interested vendors to attend to ask questions. They worked with the Illinois Restaurant Association to better connect with vendors.
The result is, as of now, more than 50 percent of the vendors are either owned by women or people of color, according to Taste of Chicago manager Neal Heitz. They’ll add more vendors before July, but the target is to increase that number to 65 percent. For context, in 2017, the number was less than 50 percent.
Increasing the festival’s diversity isn’t just to make organizers feel better, but it’s also a sound business decision, according to Mark Kelly commissioner of the city’s cultural affairs and special events committee that oversees the festival. He pointed out that over the last two years, thanks mostly to target entertainment, that Latino festival attendance has surged by 60 percent. Taste should better represent city demographics, Kelly said.
“Not to pick on Lollapalooza, but it’s narrow, it’s closed in,” he said. “It’s not part of the city. Taste is a city celebration.”
Heitz added: “We’re fine with four-star restaurants being involved but we want to represent the diversity of the city, the ethnicities, the neighborhoods — all parts of the city.”
So the special tasting menu dinners featuring celebrity chefs that the Taste had held in past years of gone, with more of a focus on inclusion. New vendor highlights include Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue in Austin and Slab Bar-B-Que in South Shore. Another vendor of note is Lao Sze Chuan. Tony Hu’s Chinese restaurant was a former festival staple with Hu handing out samples and educating crowds about Sichuan cuisine. Coinciding with Hu’s legal troubles, Lao Sze Chuan disappeared from the Taste’s lineup. But more than a year after his release from prison, Lao Sze Chuan will return.
Kitchen 17, the Lakeview vegan restaurant, gives the festival a meatless choice. Heitz is also excited about Yvolina’s Tamales in Pilsen. A Place by Damao, the Chinese restaurant in Bridgeport, Luella’s Gospel Bird in Bucktown, and 90 Miles Cuban Café in Logan Square, Roscoe Village, and Lincolnwood are other newbies this year.
If this is a start, then hopefully the Taste and its 65 staffers will continue to move the needle in future festivals with Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot onboard. There needs to be a sustained effort year after year for true progress and leadership needs to embrace diversity as a necessity, not just a talking point.
There’s still room to improve. Taking a look at the lineup, West Side restaurants are still underrepresented. Eater held a panel discussion about Chicago’s international cuisine scene last week at the Ace Hotel. Attendees of the Eater Talk wondered how they could better find international restaurants. There was an overwhelming response last week to a story about a new directory of African-American-owned restaurants.
Though there’s interest in change, Taste of Chicago still battles an image problem: it’s not exactly edgy (despite Kelly saying it is). Folks still think it’s a mess of tourists slogging through Grant Park looking for food on a stick. That may have been true of the past, but Kelly said things are changing.
“If you haven’t been in the last five years, then you don’t know Taste,” he said.
Check out the Taste of Chicago’s 2019 lineup below.
(*Denotes newcomer for 2019)
42 Five-Day Vendors
Arun’s Thai Restaurant
Aunty Joy’s Jamaican Kitchen
BJ’s Market & Bakery
*Buscia’s Bacon Buns
Caffe Gelato Soiree
Chicago’s Dog House
Doom Street Eats
Garifuna Flava: A Taste of Belize
Hakka Bakka Indian Kati Rolls
*Lao Sze Chuan
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
Premier Rollin BBQ
Robinson’s No 1 Ribs
Texas de Brazil
*The Cookie Crate
The Eli’s Cheesecake Company
The Star of Siam
Ukai Japanese Restaurant
Vee Vee’s African Restaurant
23 Pop-Up Restaurants
*90 Miles Cuban Café .
*A Place by Damao
*Barangaroos Aussie Pies
BITES Asian Kitchen + Bar
*Egg Rolls Etc.
*Gordo’s Homemade Ice Cream Bars
*Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
*Luella’s Gospel Bird
*Madame VanderKloot’s Weiner Emporium
Seafood City Supermarket (Grill City)
Wood Fire Counter
17 Food Trucks
Aztec Dave’s Food Truck
Beavers Coffee + Donuts
*Big Wang’s Chinese Street Food
*Da Pizza Dude
Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp
*Mr. Quiles Mexican Food
*Ms. Tittle’s Cupcakes
*Pink Flamingo (Flamingo Rum Club)
The Lifeway Kefir Shop
*Three Legged Tacos