How ‘Taste of Chicago’ Turns into a Food Marketing Experience

I can resist anything but a bite sized temptation.

A namesake piece of the very same has shown me that taste truly lies in smaller, sumptuous bites. And consequently, over time, I have begun vouching for smaller, savory bites of more food than carnivorous appetites of mountainous food teetering off a plate. Hence my addiction to tasting menus in Milan and San Francisco, a personal consumption trend that will be written about for years to come.

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Which is why Taste of Chicago, as the name has it, sounds like an alarmingly refreshing idea on paper: mixing far-to-table old fashioned country fair concepts of stalls and vendors and samplings with modern day cuisine.

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Having attended for a couple of un-sequential years in a row, I have to admit that it is a fun escape into Chicago’s epic Millennium Park, with the Buckingham fountain providing a merry visual and sensual break from the city’s heated summers spent gazing at feminine legs and masculine biceps, all in petite clothing.

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This year marked its 35th anniversary and made it the biggest outdoor food festival in the nation, apparently drawing in 4 million visitors for simply a 4 day weekend! (perhaps the concerts have a part to play in this). Quite similar to the New York Wine and Food Festival (NYCWFF) Grand Tasting or the Chocolate Show, the idea is to gather the best of a given culinary niche and expose hungry gapers to as much as they can savor in miniscule, but plentiful bites.

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But amidst the swarming influx of Midwestern crowds, I have begun to find the focus shifting from foods to marketing, an inevitable deviation given the success of the event and the sheer number of tongues involved in this tasting. For what used to be a taste of Chicago’s finest has become more of a brand competition, interlaced with samplings of retail store favorites and misses altogether, alongside some rather farfetched relatives of food putting up stalls about wellness, depression and beauty. Starting from the entire philosophy of buying tickets ($8 for 12) and using these to buy foods, the premise is to ensure enjoyment, by tricking consumers into thinking in tickets instead of money. Not a bad proposition really, but when combined with the sheer volume of brands setting up a trade show, things start to get awry.

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On conceptualizing what proportion and which constituents of the annual sighting lean more towards the food versus marketing pendulum, I find that Taste of Chicago favors elements in each one of the four consequential buckets. What I fear is that the retailing marketing element will overcome it to a degree of extinction, akin to the Chocolate Show, RIP. Admittedly I didn’t get to taste a plethora of places either due to my vegetarianism (hence my no show at Billy Goat, M Burger, Robinsons, Spritzburger and Savoy, all of which caught my attention though), or due to a sense of déjà vu (sorry Eli’s Cheesecake, Churro Factory, Original Rainbow Cone, Fudge Pot, Punky’s Pizza and Pasta and Bombay Wraps, all of which sounded sumptuous but either did not fit into my calorie limit or were too much for a sweltering day). Not to mention, a huge applaud to Humana’s Healthier Choices for setting out a nutritionally fitting tasting that I attempted to mildly follow with high hopes.

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Possibly the highest in my personal preference is the tasting experience, no pun intended towards the title of the event. For this trend is one that deviates from very immediate marketing but focuses on food itself. A number of pop up shops, newbies on the Chicago market, and genuine tasters fall into this quadrant. Jerk is my favorite example here, owing to its catchy name, this Brazilian spicy food truck lets it paraphernalia donned by its un-salesy vendors draw all eyeballs. Amplified further by Cajun fries with spicy homemade dressing which are a sumptuous addition to a snackable afternoon. And while I didn’t get around to it, the churro doughnut seemed to go on the innovative cronut trend, courtesy of Taco Joint.

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Lou Manalti’s, legendary deep dish pizzeria of Chicago, falls into this bracket rather by default, for what is a brand to do when no marketing but word of mouth is needed? Aptly choosing to focus on its food, the only misfortune is that the pieces are not really deep dish, nor do they score in the price department, for one could easily bolt to the flagship store to consume a bit more variety for a bit less.

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Caffe Gelato would probably secure a shortlived place here owing to the cheesy t-shirt taglines like “Like it, you’ll like it!”, which pushes it into a marketing realm. Nonetheless, having tasted a plethora of their sorbets and a particularly refreshing bissap aka hibiscus sorbet from their neighbors Iyanze, the sheer value of sorbets and gelatos on steamy days benefits their existence. Cheers to Franco’s Ristorante on their perfectly flavored watermelon ice! Which is probably why the lines outside Star of Siam were painstakingly long to taste some truly unique flavor combinations, like coconut and green tea. Collectively adding to my dated list of quirky ice cream favorites.

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Despite my addictive drive towards shopping, perhaps it is the prime reason why Taste of Chicago has become rather synonymous with a brand pitch, for the likes of Pure Leaf iced tea or Mountain Dew jump in to give out free samples from their over-enthused staff to parched, and often quarreling folks in long lines. While undeniably refreshing it dampens the atmosphere, entertained only mildly by the music truck equipped with a mega boom box to market Mountain Dew’s Kickstart as a caffeine dose for the wild party pups of the night.

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At least Mariano’s (Roundy’s Supermarkets) offered edible arrangements like watermelons slices and corn cobs, akin to what one would find in stores. While Bic flame disk offers a more culinary perspective, keeping it useful, if not too much like any other retail storefront. And the likes of Sensodyne fall into the shopping versus sales segment, only because of the helpful educational backing; fancy having your dental check up done free whilst chowing down street food in Chicago!

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Probably my least favorite of all are the large, voluminous areas reserved primarily for sales purposes. Cases in point: L’Oreal Change Your Hair’s stall, or Genworth with its #LetsTalk hashtag, promising more open communication within families (noble but rather misplaced), and Southwest empowering others with social media and its win a flight campaign on twitter. The entire assembly of rather unrelated brands doing nothing quite related to food can be a welcome break for some, but remains frown inducing for yours truly. On related notes, what were the propane gas tankers doing in the rather visible background?

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All Round

Perhaps the best is the marriage of the above, for I saw several pop ups and brand names who had both a culinary spectacle to offer, alongside a convincing marketing tactic. Garifuna Flava: A Taste of Belize fared well by being one of the many who had their folks cutting and frying plantains in plain sight, the scents of which lured me towards my favorite potato substitute. Their marketing ploy was to have a graffiti silhouette of Food Network’s Guy Fieri’s stamp of approval.

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BJ’s Market and Bakery had similar open air cooked meaty dishes that I didn’t taste. Spains finest olive oils hosted an interesting tasting of olive oils, with twitter enabled giveaways as a tactic to lure wanderers into grabbing well stitched totes and mouthfuls of a trending dessert: olive oil cake. Decadence at its finest, supplemented by Iyanze who jumped on the vegan bandwagon that my favorite city LA is so well known for, almost requiring less of a marketing push. And I approved of the spicy burger patty, albeit not the bun!

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Ultimately, let’s not forget that any outdoor food festival, there will always be a certain degree of things transforming into a whimsical, comical experience. From the awkwardness of having to eat a frozen chocolate covered banana (as a boy, especially) to posing with a giant coffee cup to waltzing in the open park with the Chicago skyline, it was truly a fun time.

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However all things must end, with new things savored and new lessons learned.
Till next year, addiction.

taste of chicago 2014 @sssourabh

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