Local vendors spice up Taste

By Brian Klein

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana has taken less than a week to set up, but it’s taken a year to plan. Since Tuesday the Champaign Park District has been preparing West Side Park in Champaign for the 35th annual Taste of C-U.

The weekend festival starts Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., followed by 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, and finishing Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The event is an exhibition of artists and entertainers, but the main draw is sampling the cuisine of the local restaurants and vendors.

Kristi Bolton, Special Events Manager for the park district, said that this year boasts 31 different food vendors, the most the Taste has ever offered. The event will also feature 60 artists, including crafts for sale, as well as 30 entertainers.

There will be three stages set throughout the park for shows and concerts, including one specifically for children. The event will also have a food demo tent on Saturday and Sunday with cooking instructions and demonstrations. The festival will also feature a community corridor of booths for various community organizations.

Patrons can buy tickets redeemable for food and activities. Works of art can be bought, but the ticket system will not be used.

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The event is an opportunity for exposure of local establishments and a chance for area residents to experience a little of what the cities have to offer.

Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said the Taste brings in people from outside Champaign-Urbana. He added that the festival benefits Champaign by bringing people to its downtown area, just east of West Side Park.

“We’re promoting the downtown as an entertainment center,” Schweighart said.

This year’s festival features 11 new food vendors including Sun Singer Wine and Spirits Ltd. The wine and food store’s new Champaign location will be two years old in November, said deli manager Nancy Scott. Originally from Monticello, Ill., Sun Singer is using the Taste for publicity.

“It’s a great way to get our name out there and reach out to the public,” Scott said. Because alcohol sales are prohibited at the Taste, Sun Singer cannot sell what they are most known for. Scott sees this as an opportunity to show the public that they offer more than just wine at their store.

“We have a lot of things to offer in terms of food,” Scott said.

Other vendors are Taste regulars, like Hickory River Smokehouse in Urbana. Joe Evans, general manager of Hickory River, said the restaurant has been involved in the event for the past 10 years.

“It’s great for local advertising,” Evans said. He added that he often meets customers from outside of Champaign-Urbana at the festival.

“It’s great for the community,” he said. “It’s a fun day.”

Hickory River recently changed its name from Longhorn Steakhouse, and this is the first Taste in which they will use the new name.

“It’s very important to get the Hickory River [name] out there,” said Evans, who added that people might not realize the restaurant has kept the same ownership and food.

Evans said that over his five years of participation in the event, the Taste has grown in size, as well as becoming more organized.

Bolton said that attendance of the Taste has increased steadily over the years. She said she expects 50,000-60,000 patrons this year. For now, West Side Park satisfies their need for space.

“We’re always looking to expand,” she said.

After covering the costs of putting on the event, a portion of the proceeds will go to the park district’s Youth Scholarship Fund.

Last year’s Taste brought in $190,000.