Charlie Robinson on Smaller Taste of Chicago

This city is synonymous with a lot of different foods, but when folks think of Taste of Chicago, what often comes to mind is ribs, and lots of them. When the mayor announced late last year that the Taste of Chicago would be slashed from its usual 10 days to five, I began to wonder how it would impact restaurateurs because it's a major money-maker and source of exposure that got chopped in half. That's why I called Charlie Robinson of Robinson's Ribs, who have, together, historically been one of the biggest names at the fest. As the Taste and July both draw closer, I gave Robinson a call to see what his take was on it, what other restaurateurs can do to make the most of it and who else this might effect.

So what do you think? Is this a boon or a bummer?

Charlie Robinson: We're not in love with the idea but we have to participate because we are part of Chicago and a part of Taste of Chicago. It's been a good event to us. We've been good to Taste of Chicago and it's been good to us as well. But I certainly think that we have to participate because we've been there so long and we just don't know the end results until we give it a shot. I think most restaurants feel pretty much the same in terms of just waiting it out. But it's going to be a very interesting situation. I look at it from that end of it, and I know now that because of Taste we've been invited to some other events. This year we're going to be a part of Naperville Rib Festival.

I just think we do have to participate in Taste. Certainly with the five days it's going to be very interesting to go through all that work to set it up and if we get a couple rain days or some real hot days, it could be very interesting along those lines.

That didn't even enter my mind that you guys might not participate. Have there been a lot of restaurant owners saying they're bowing out in protest?

Charlie Robinson: None of the big guys are gonna bow out. We're one of the top 5 restaurants in terms of sales for the last 20 years, so I could see a little ma and pa that don't do so much in sales. I could see them not participating.

In that case, who does this hurt more? Bigger restaurants more than smaller ones?

Charlie Robinson: Oh sure. Look at us. We do a quarter-million dollars in sales in 10 days. That's the way to work.

Did I just hear you correctly?

Charlie Robinson: [Laughs.] Right, you heard me correctly. Even Stevie Wonder could see through that. [Laughs.] That's the way of the world, though. We expect to go out and do a third of that in the five days because our biggest sales are at Taste of Chicago. It's gonna definitely hurt the restaurants along those lines, big and small.

Sorry, I'm still wondering how I can make that much money that quickly without breaking the law.

Charlie Robinson: [Laughs.] Well, one thing about Taste: it's expensive. We got a high food cost item, ribs. It's expensive for us to be out there. You can do big numbers in those days if you got the right product and know how to get it out. We've done it by experience and all that.

That's why I came to you to talk about this. But in terms of cost, will it cost you the same whether you're there five days or 10 days?

Charlie Robinson: We can eliminate a lot of our costs compared to what we've done in the past. For instance, over the years we've rented out a 40-foot reefer trailer on location just to have -- for five days we won't need that. We'll still need a reefer but we can use half that size to store product. We got a big freezer at the restaurant here in Oak Park we can work out if necessary.

Still, we're gonna cut labor costs. We normally hire for Taste of Chicago about 50, 52, 53 employees. That'll be cut in half. We won't need probably 20, 21, 22 employees to handle this event. So it's gonna hurt a lot of the kids that are looking for summer work to come out and work those 10 days. That might be the only job that they would get all summer because of the way the economy and everything is.

Yeah, I've heard a little about that.

Charlie Robinson: That's gonna hurt along those lines, but we wanna stay optimistic that things are going to work themselves out and hopefully those kids can find work at other places but I know a lot of them depended on Taste of Chicago.

From what I can tell there's never really been a definitive reason given for cutting Taste in half other than it doesn't really make money.

Charlie Robinson: They said Taste lost money. I don't know the bottom lines, I don't know all that. But with the sales of the restaurants it's kinda hard to see them losing money. Like I said, I don't see the books. They said the city lost money.

Do you have any advice for restaurateurs who aren't as seasoned at the Taste? Like, maybe this is their first year or next year might be? How could they cut costs?

Charlie Robinson: It's gonna be extremely hard for a first-time vendor to enter Taste of Chicago and make money. It's almost impossible for a new guy to come out and make money. Fifty percent of the restaurants, normally, over the years, probably will make money. You got another 25 percent that'll break even. And another 25 percent would probably lose money. That's a scenario that I would look at from that end of it. It's gonna be hard for a new restaurant to come out and make money that've never done it before, and in the five days, because you need to have the experience, you need to know what you're doing, you need to know what to order. If you go out and get caught with a weekend not having the right kind of product or not having enough on-hand and everything's closed so you can't get product -- there's a lot of factors that weigh into this. That's why it's scary for a new vendor to take this task on. To have new vendors is good, but I wouldn't go out expecting to make money. That wouldn't be the thing. That's the way I look at it. I could be wrong.

I look at Taste as a way to keep the name out there. It's a lot of exposure and that's always good to have that name recognition. That's big time. We got friends and colleagues that come from all over. Some of our fans come from Pennsylvania and they normally just come for that week of Taste of Chicago and take the vacation for the full weekend. So I don't know what's going to happen for people who want to do that and be a part of it. That could hurt the city as well in terms of hotels and vacation money.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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