While this past weekend’s Taste of C-U was pretty much a bust due to inclement weather, the real washout came long before the first food ticket was collected. The fact of the matter remains simple, and sad: the organizers behind the Taste of C-U fail, year in and year out, to give the community a genuine and honest look at what our cities really have to offer when it comes to our restaurant and culinary scenes. And the fix isn’t hard to spot; it would be simple, rewarding, and purposeful. Instead, an event like this one ends up insulting the independent and local businesses who work hard to keep C-U a place with smart and exciting restaurants.
Using the namesake of one’s own city to define an event is risky business. Essentially, you’ve decided to brand something with the intention of representing both its culture and people. 40 years ago, when the first people organized the (then) Taste of Champaign, we’re quite sure that it was done so out of convenience and necessity; after all, this is an event that is supposed to be a weekend-long smorgasbord that encompasses the sights, sounds, and more importantly, smells and tastes of the local culinary scene in Champaign and its older, smaller sister, Urbana.
We understand that it’s easy to pick things apart. Being judgmental of how the park district spends its dollars (which are, in part, comprised of our dollars) is convenient when looking for ways to stir the pot. But this particular criticism was not borne simply based on boredom or even an urge to snipe. We decided to highlight the perennial pitfalls of the annual Taste of C-U because it is something that we hear being called “disappointing” year in and year out; we all agreed that in 2010, it had gone too far without any sense of real dissent.
What is more than a little disappointing to us is the laundry list of restaurants that aren’t even close to being “local” to Champaign or Urbana. In fact, it’s kind of pathetic.
With the wealth of fantastic local restaurants and culinary ingenuity just down the road from West Side Park, you’d assume that the Champaign Park District might be disappointed in themselves to allow behemoth chain restaurants like Bob Evans and Papa John’s to even get in the mix alongside hyper-local joints like Juniors and Xinh Xinh Cafe. But that’s not the case. And it doesn’t end there. In fact, of the 33 food vendors that set up shop at this year’s very rainy and muddy Taste, just 17 of them were local to Champaign-Urbana. And one was simply a catering company based in Chicago. Caribbean Grill didn’t even lay claim to a home restaurant. It’s just a traveling catering service. A taste of C-U? Come on, Park District — with what kind of folks do you think you are dealing?
Here’s some more of what you could have enjoyed at this year’s Taste of “C-U”: Houlihan’s, Marble Slab, Edible Arrangements, Carribean Grill, Cookies By Design, Rosati’s Pizza, foods from County Market, Chevy’s Fresh Mex, Papa John’s, Smoothie King, Bob Evans, and Cold Stone Creamery.
Perhaps it’s time for the park district to either re-brand their event to better reflect the reality of it, or start seeking out restaurants and food local to Champaign-Urbana themselves, exclusively. And by that, we mean exactly as it sounds: how about 33 booths of restaurants that are truly local, so that we, the community, can truly get a “taste of C-U?”
Instead of County Market and Edible Arrangements, why not get Strawberry Fields and the Common Ground Food Co-op to sell fresh fruit at a few stands? Instead of Marble Slab and Cold Stone, why not get Custard Cup into the mix? Perhaps have a King of the Custard competition with Cozy’s? Why Chevy’s Fresh Mex? Why not Taco Loco, or El Charro, or Mas Amigos, or any number of locally owned Mexican restaurants? Rosati’s Pizza? With Papa Del’s just down the road? Is that a joke?
The obvious retaliation against queries such as these are paramount to the reason that they likely aren’t set up at the Taste to begin with: the above local joints might not have the capacity or manpower or equipment to make it happen.
Well, if that’s the case — figure it out. It should be the park district’s job to make these things happen. Taking the easy path doesn’t generally end with anything of which to be proud. The Taste of C-U falls right into that situation, and it fails us.
To be sure that we weren’t mistaken, we asked Champaign Park District Special Events Director Tony Oligney-Estill about how vendors are chosen, and what, if any criteria they follow in selecting the restaurants each year.
Just as we had assumed, to wit: “We receive between 30-35 food applications each year. We do have a criteria. We first look to see that they are from Champaign/Urbana (1st priority). Next week (sic) look at [the] type of cuisine. Then we look at if they followed all the application requirements such as listing taste size portions. After all that, if there is still room, we look at restaurants outside of CU. We have a panel of CPD that review all the applications and jury them.”
Seems to us that, based on the fact that there just 33 vendors at this year’s Taste, there wasn’t much of a selection process at all. Essentially, all we’re getting is a “taste” of the restaurants that were interested in applying, paying the fee, and setting up shop within the guidelines. Basically, there is no one at the Park District whose job it is to seek out restaurants in Champaign-Urbana for the event. They just put out an application and hope that they get enough to fill the slots. So, while that idea would be fine if there were plenty of local joints from which to choose, there aren’t.
And the fact that they are willing to accept the applications of major conglomerates like Papa John’s or Bob Evans simply isn’t OK, if you are looking at this from a local business perspective.
How do you think the programming at Krannert Center would look if the artistic director simply waited for agents to contact them about who was available? What about the Illini basketball and football teams? Who do you think they might play if they simply put the word out that they were looking for games? And what would become of said teams if Coach Weber or Zook simply allowed interested high school players to sign up at will for scholarships? First come, first served?
No, an event like this requires recruiting. We have far too much depth in our restaurants to be resigned to eating the likes of a Bob Evans hamburger or a shitty slice of pizza from Papa John’s.
How are pizza places like One World and Manolo’s, who paid the same fee as Papa John’s, supposed to truly compete with the third largest pizza chain in the world? And moreover, isn’t the idea behind the Taste of Champaign for people to be able to taste the food of the people who live here? For every person that settled for the conveniently tasteless and familiar flavor of Papa John’s, they were missing out on some of the best sourdough crust you can find, made right here in our little burg — not shipped frozen on a truck from a factory with stops in every town along the way.
Listen — we recognize that it would require some legwork to get it done, but laziness is no excuse for mediocrity. If the Champaign Park District truly wants to engage the community with an honest and delicious event, they’ll devote as much time to the recruitment of restaurants as they do to the execution of it.
In the end, we’re all living here, and hopeful for great things from the people who work to make C-U a great place to live. And we expect more from our park district. They’re our tax dollars at work, so we hope that next year and for years to come, our choices are a little broader from a local perspective.