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Chicago Restaurants and Organizers Ponder the Future of Food Festivals

Will Chicago see new fests on private grounds like Pizza City USA?

Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

As summer comes to a close, so does Chicago’s festival season where restaurants play a vital role. Food vendors create memories of strolling through a park or pedestrianized street chomping on Eli’s Cheesecake on a stick or scarfing down a slice of Connie’s stuffed pizza.

But festivals have been looking different since COVID, and some, like the Silver Room Block Party in Hyde Park, have ended. Organizer Eric Williams, who also co-owns Bronzeville Winery, explained his rationale in July via Facebook post in July:

“Over the last 17 years, I’ve contributed over $1 million to subsidize this event,” Williams writes. “So when people say the block party used to be ‘free’ in actuality it was never free for me.”

Fests depend on sponsors and also use suggested donations, which have been in the news in Chicago over the last few weeks as some bully attendees into donations, disguising them as required admission fees. That’s illegal in Chicago if the entrance stands in a public way — unless there’s a special permit for larger events like Lollapalooza or Chicago Gourmet. Duped attendees have revolted using the same anger that’s been displayed in the recent discourse over service fees. Williams moved his event from 53rd Street to the lakefront so he could charge admission.

Challenges have pushed many restaurants away from neighborhood festivals and into the world of private events such as music fests and this weekend’s Pizza City USA Fest, an upstart established last year charges $95. Chicago Gourmet, Millennium Park’s annual end-of-summer blowout, charges $79 for its main event on the weekend of September 22. Still, COVID crushed all. For the third straight year, instead of stretching along the park beside Pritzker Pavillion, it’s confined to the rooftop above the Harris Theater. Labor issues and the economic climate have improved in the last eight to 10 months with inflation leveling out, but nothing is a sure bet: “Festivals are constantly evolving, right now we’re not sure what next year will look like,” says Sam Toia of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Soul & Smoke, a barbecue restaurant with locations in Avondale and suburban Evanston, participated in EEEEEATSCON Chicago, hosted by the Infatuation (a subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase) at the Salt Shed where the $25 ticket didn’t cover food. They’ve also participated in Taste of Chicago. Co-owner Heather Bublick says she loves using street fests for marketing to introduce her restaurant to new customers. It’s also a way for a small business to generate more money during the summertime. But sometimes fests can be expensive and charge vendors upwards of $2,000 per day. Bublick says restaurants need to be picky and keep an eye out for fests that charge nothing or a flat rate.

“It doesn’t happen often, but our preferred fee is actually paying a percentage of sales,” Bublick says. “This incentivizes the festival to set us up for success because if we succeed and sell a lot of food, they make a bigger commission off of us.”

While some fests are closing up shop, Steve Dolinsky is trying to establish a new one. Dolinsky is known to many Chicagoans as the Hungry Hound for his appearances on ABC Chicago. He’s moved to NBC Chicago as the Food Guy while positioning himself as an expert in Chicago pizza with tours and books. Last year, he expanded his Pizza City USA brand with a West Loop festival. The inaugural event suffered setbacks thanks to logistical issues that resulted in food running out, compounded by rainy weather.

But after holding the festival in April in LA, Dolinsky is back in Chicago highlighting the city’s best pizzas at Salt Shed, off the Chicago River. This year’s festival features unlimited drinks and instead of all-you-can-eat, there’s a 10-slice limit. There are also desserts and salads. Again, Pizza City isn’t a street fest, so it’s not a pure comparison, but Dolinsky writes in an email that things are getting more expensive for everyone. The prices for concert tickets have also increased, Dolinsky notes: “People are feeling tapped out. There’s no doubt our costs have increased from last year.”

They’ve also added live music and more classes and seminars: “We tried that approach in LA in the spring, and it worked really well,” Dolinsky writes. “There were fewer lines and all of the comments we heard/read afterward were encouraging.”

Restaurants may have other concerns. Food critic Michael Nagrant took issue with the ethics of a media entity like Dolinsky’s brand of reviews organizing its own events. What happens if a restaurant owner turns down an invitation? Will that impact a review?

Professor Pizza, Anthony Scardino worked out of a Humboldt Park ghost kitchen until moving to West Loop, so connecting with pizza lovers closer to downtown was important. So he signed on for the chance to participate in the Infatuation’s recent Salt Shed event. While the professor won’t be at the Pizza City Fest this year, he’s signed up for the ARC Music Festival running from Friday, September 1 through Sunday, September 3 in West Loop. Sometimes Scardino has to turn down opportunities because of staffing and money. However, now that he’s got nine workers, he can venture out more. “Fests are a lot of work but they tend to be worth it for the business,” he says.

Though Pizza Fest vendors will use mini ovens to bake pizzas fresh onsite. Still, quality is a worry with weather and pies waiting on tables. Robert Garvey at Robert’s Pizza is also nervous about his pizza degrading at the festival and will deliver fresh pies to his station from River North restaurant so they don’t sit around too much. Bill Jacobs of Piece Pizza has vowed to never take his act on the road: “For a pizza to sit already baked, having been boxed, and at a festival waiting to be reheated, is just bad for any pizza,” Jacobs says, adding: “Reputation is everything.”