It’s July in Chicago which means the city is in the middle of street festival season, a wonderful time of eating and drinking while listening to live music, much to the chagrin of motorists who have to evade closed roads while cranking up their air conditioning.
The world of street fests has been tough over the last few years due to the uncertainty of COVID and its impact. Restaurants, for example, have struggled with fielding workers. Hiring additional employees or diverting existing staff off-site is a big ask that’s kept many away from the festival circuit.
Then there’s the time-honored Chicago tradition of dealing with festival volunteers at the entrances asking for money. The fact is, some of these volunteers and the organizers aren’t honest. Under city rules, street fests that use public walkways must be free to enter. To get around that, organizers came up with weasel words — often in small print — asking for a “suggested donation.” But as festival-goers approach the gates, the “suggested” part isn’t always communicated clearly, and sometimes volunteers bully patrons. Folks can feel that the fees, which range from $5 to $20 across the city, are mandatory.
Where these donations exactly go is mostly a mystery. Festival organizers will say they cover a combination of paying for musical acts and other costs associated with hosting the festival. Sometimes the fees are promised to a charity.
That’s what makes a Thursday report that the city of Chicago caught organizers of last month’s Taste of Randolph charging a $10 admission, unsurprising. Block Club Chicago spoke with the fest’s organizers, the West Loop Community Organization, which partners with Star Events, a private company behind other street tests like Retro on Roscoe. A listing on Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism arm, states “entrance to the festival is $10.” The organizers also employed Bucketlisters, the company behind pop-culture pop-ups like the Golden Girls and Malibu Barbie, to market the festival. Bucketlisters also offered VIP admission.
The city asked Taste of Randolph organizers to change online listings to reflect the fees aren’t mandatory. Bucketlisters and others are now offering refunds for anyone who felt pressured or duped into paying the $10.
West Loop Community Organization President Julie Darling spoke to Block Club and says the signage at the fest was clear about the donations. She called online postings asking for an admission fee a mistake and she blamed an intern for the error. She also counters that the city’s fee restriction doesn’t apply to online listings and that the community should see that $10 provides a lot of value. Darling has taken heat online for a variety of complaints about the festival including a lack of local vendors, as well as cash-only food and drink booths that didn’t accept credit card or electronic payments. Darling posted that organizers didn’t want to pay steep fees for Internet access to enable Apple Pay and other digital forms of payment. That wasn’t a problem last weekend at Lincoln Square’s Square Roots Festival, where attendees could just tap and go to enjoy a beer from dozens of local breweries including Half Acre and Dovetail.
The West Loop Community Organization, which financially benefits from the fest, has its fingerprints in a variety of projects including the upcoming Bally’s Chicago casino going in at Chicago and Halsted. A temporary casino is opening at the Medinah Temple in River North, and Darling is quoted in several places as showing her support for the casino.
Taste of Randolph was once a gateway to Randolph Restaurant Row. Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat used the fest as outreach like many other chefs. A good number remain like Publican Quality Meats, Forno Rosso, and Gaijin. Still, some local restaurant owners, like David Choi of Seoul Taco, say Taste of Randolph has lost its luster since the pandemic. Choi has experience putting together food lineups at festivals as he brought big names like Kasama and Harold’s Chicken to Summer Smash. Choi even managed to bring Claudio Velez, Chicago’s famous Tamale Guy, to the music festival. Velez has a bit of an unfortunate history in West Loop thanks to an anonymous tip.
Street fests can sometimes hurt local businesses as they often repel customers who don’t want to deal with crowds or find parking. For West Loopers who feel they lost income during the festival, local resident Moshe Tamssot — an outspoken critic of Darling and the West Loop Community Organization who’s behind the True West Loop Facebook group that duels with Darling’s Real West Loop group — has created a claim form to collect stories for anyone who maybe been impacted by the event. The form is created by a private citizen and has nothing to do with the WLCO.