Chicago's showcase summer festival, Taste of Chicago, is struggling to find a new identity amid dwindling revenues and more choices for cash-strapped residents and visitors.
The 32-year-old food festival, which draws millions of people to Grant Park each July, used to be Chicago's premiere event bringing together restaurants from around the city. But after financial losses the past three years, organizers made the Taste shorter and smaller, and are charging for concerts. The moves come even as new events pop up across the U.S. and other festivals report record attendance.
It's not yet clear how the changes will affect the Taste's success. But for Kathy Davis, who has been attending for 20 years, this year's event lacked the large crowds, fireworks and high-profile entertainment she remembered.
"It's a little disheartening," said 44-year-old Davis of Bartlett, Ill.
Meanwhile, other festivals across the country are doing well. Los Angeles and Austin both had successful inaugural food and wine festivals last year. The Taste of Philadelphia has expanded, adding more space, food trucks and another stage for entertainment. The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival donated $250,000 to charities after the event in 2011.
Taste of Chicago has lost $2.7 million in the last three years, officials say. This year, the city tried to cut some losses by selling 15,000 concert tickets at $25 each; more than 7,000 tickets still were available on opening day. The festival moved from July Fourth weekend to a week later and was cut from 10 days to five. It features 40 vendors, down from nearly 60.
The Taste's well-established brand is one of its greatest assets, but that might also be holding it back, experts say.
"Chicago is the granddaddy of them all," said Ira Rosen, North American director of the International Festivals and Events Association. "Maybe it has suffered from its success. People say, 'Been there, done that. What's new? What's different?' If they've not kept that cutting edge, it's going to hurt."
At its peak in 2006 and 2007, the event saw 3.6 million visitors. But last year, it drew 2.3 million visitors, down 11 percent from 2010. In addition to the most recent adjustments, the expensive annual fireworks show was axed two years ago, something officials cite as one reason attendance dropped.
City officials don't yet have a tally for this year's opening day, which was Wednesday, though they said they hoped to make the event more cost-effective. They won't know how the changes have impacted the festival until after it's over and five-day attendance and revenue numbers are calculated.
The city, with a budget deficit of more than $600 million, spends $6.8 million on the Taste of Chicago, though it has some corporate sponsorships and hopes to make all its money back. The festival also leads to more than $80 million in additional spending in the city, said city spokeswoman Cindy Gatziolis.
In other cities, nonprofit organizations or event management companies run similar festivals. But when Chicago asked for private bids in 2010, just one company offered a plan.
Taste also faces competition from numerous other Chicago festivals, ranging from neighborhood events to big music festivals such as Lollapalooza, which is funded and produced by a private company.
Gatziolis declined to comment on the possibility of the city handing the reins to someone else, adding that the city works hard to preserve the free admission and low prices.
Charging admission might make Chicago's event safer, some festival-goers said. In 2008, one person was killed and three people were injured during a shooting after the July 3 fireworks show. Though crowds might be smaller, they would be easier to manage.
"I would pay a small one, like $5 or $10 maybe," said Scott Reierstad, a 34-year-old from Rolling Meadows, Ill.
Funding for Pig Out in the Park, a comparable festival in Spokane, Wash., comes from sponsorships, restaurant booth fees and commission on restaurant profits, but not from the city, said Bill Burke, who owns Burke Marketing and founded the event 33 years ago. The festival has grown about 5 percent every year, and saw about 95,000 visitors last summer.
Other food festivals are more upscale. Los Angeles, Austin and Atlanta hosted inaugural food and wine festivals in 2011 and 2012. Admission ranges from $75 to more than $1000, but includes free food and wine tasting, classes, seminars and celebrity chefs.
David Bernahl, co-founder of the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, lived in Chicago for most of his childhood. He remembers Taste fondly but said organizers should consider a partnership with a full-time events management company or nonprofit organization.
"Taste is the same as it's been for a really long time," Bernahl said. "Sometimes it takes a risk, which is very difficult for government agencies."