How to Plan a Community Food Festival

The gargantuan Taste of Chicago offers a handy blueprint

2015 Taste Of Chicago - Day 4
••• Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

If you're planning your first community event, chances are you won't be aiming for anything like the scale of the gargantuan annual festival called The Taste of Chicago. Then again, that event, one of America's biggest food festivals, began in 1980 as a one-day event with 36 food vendors.

It now attracts more than 3.5 million over several days and brings in about $12 million in revenue a year. The Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Illinois Restaurant Association work together to plan and execute the event.

If you would like to plan a community food festival, no matter how modest in scale compared to Chicago's, you can't go wrong following their time-tested plan.

The Main Tasks

Before starting out, it helps to define the key areas of responsibility. The primary functional areas of Taste of Chicago, or of any community food festival, must include the following:

  • Operations
  • Food vendors
  • Programming
  • Sponsorship
  • Marketing and public relations
  • Accounting and contract management

All of the above will be following the same general timetable in planning the festival.

Festival Timeline

Planning for a festival starts a full year before the tents go up. This is the schedule the Mayor’s Office of Special Events follows for its role in each year's Taste of Chicago:

  • 12 Months: Identify location and dates and create a rough sketch of the festival map
  • 9 Months: Update festival map and identify vendors
  • 6 Months: Confirm vendors, sponsors, programming, and suppliers
  • 4 Months: Finalize entertainment and re-confirm functional area
  • 3 Months: Produce festival marketing materials
  • 1 Week: Manage operations load-in
  • 1 Day: Manage vendor load-in
  • Event conclusion: Manage operations load-out
  • 1 Week after: Hold wrap-up meeting and make recommendations

Festival Management

As a government agency, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events is in charge of the Taste of Chicago and a long list of other events that take place along Chicago’s lakefront and in the city's many neighborhoods. Revenue from the Taste pays for most of the other events managed by the office.

Since the agency has been doing this job since 1980, most of the functional teams in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and Illinois Restaurant Association are highly experienced in their areas. There's a general manager for the event to focus on keeping the schedule on track.

In addition to members of the office, the general manager works with at least 20 city offices and agencies, including the police and fire departments, the Department of Health, Streets and Sanitation, the Park District, and the Office of Emergency Management Communications.

Another important functional area is accounting and contract management. Because it's a government agency, it has to follow the city's procurement process and other city guidelines.

Operations

The operations area is responsible for site preparation, stage and production, event support, and security. It's responsible for making sure the event is constructed properly at the start and then dismantled after the festival ends.

The job requires coordination with many city agencies early in the process.

In Chicago, these processes include street closures, tent construction, carpentry, and electrical work, security, logistics for supplier trucks, and much more.

Consider what your operations team will handle themselves and what should be contracted out for your event. Start making calls to find the right people. What local agencies will your team need to work with? Contact them as soon as possible.

Restaurants and Vendors

For the 2015 Taste of Chicago, the event partnered with more than 60 food vendors, including at least 19 new restaurants representing many of Chicago’s distinctive neighborhoods. Of course, in Chicago, certain items must be on the menu, including pizza, ribs, ice cream, and cheesecake.

In your own planning, you'll need to think about the food and treats that your community prizes.

In Chicago, festival spots are coveted and vendors must be able to handle the volume and have a completely clean status with the city. They even have to complete a state Summer Festival Sanitation Certificate Course.

You'll need to think about what criteria you might require of participating food vendors and how many you would like to have.

Note: The first year can be tough, but with each year's success you will find that you have more and more willing participants.

Programming

At the Taste of Chicago, food draws the crowds, but many other activities keep people there even after they've had their fill. Over the years, the programming team has incorporated all of the following elements into the overall program:

  • Free concerts on multiple stages
  • Cooking demonstrations with top chefs and cookbook authors
  • A family village including a children’s stage
  • An environmental tent for green education
  • A sports pavilion
  • An international shopping pavilion
  • The Budweiser Clydesdales and their Dalmatian companions
  • Amusement rides
  • Fireworks

Consider what other programs and activities you may want to include in your food festival.

Sponsorship

The Taste of Chicago has created several categories for sponsorships, and they have become a major source of funding and in-kind support. Corporate marketers and corporate event planners participate in community events to reinforce their brand and gain exposure.

In turn, they get some perks, like a sponsors-only hospitality tent at the event.

Consider what local corporate sponsors may be interested in funding your community event, and think about what kinds of packages and perks you might provide.

Marketing and Public Relations

Marketers who work on the Taste of Chicago are in an enviable position because the event automatically draws media attention in Chicago and elsewhere. The Mayor’s Office of Special Events doesn’t have to spend too much on traditional advertising to spread the word and promote the event.

However, it's the marketers' job to make sure that all of the relevant information about the event is out there and is accurate. They maintain the event website and social media presence and promote the web contents to both the media and the public. As in any event, last-minute changes are common.

In the beginning, it can be difficult for community food festivals to obtain the kind of exposure that larger and better-known events get. Don't hesitate to reach out to local media and let them know about the event.

And remember, food festivals are highly photogenic! This year's publicity will make next year's festival an even bigger success.