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Fair Game

The Taste of Colorado loses some regulars.

They're already setting up the road signs, laying out the hurricane fence, rolling in the trailers and cordoning off huge swaths of Civic Center Park in anticipation of this year's Taste of Colorado. And yeah, yeah -- I know there'll be music and art and culture and people selling custom welcome mats and rocks painted with inspirational sayings. But really, all I care about is the food.

Big food. Lots of food. Food on sticks and food on paper plates and food served in leaky styrofoam boxes, food that probably shouldn't be left out in the sun as long as it is, and food like funnel cakes and corn dogs and gigantic turkey legs that can only be properly appreciated if you eat them while surrounded by 7,000 of your dearest friends.

The shindig kicks off Friday, September 1, at 11:30 a.m. and will be screwing up traffic and diverting the bums and drug dealers until 8 p.m. Monday. I'll be there myself -- if not eagerly waiting outside the gates on Friday morning with a fistful of twenties and my fat pants on, then certainly spending most of Saturday stalking the grounds, grumbling about the lines, paying too much for churros and bowls of dumplings and generally making a white-trash, redneck, shorts-and-flip-flops nuisance of myself while trying to win my best girl a silkscreened Guns N' Roses tapestry.

Oh, wait a minute. That's the Colorado State Fair. My mistake.

Still, I'll definitely be at the Taste -- just as I have been for the past four years -- and I'll get horribly sunburned (we Irish don't take kindly to being a mile closer to the sun than we are on the coasts), suck down too many beers, eat my weight in fried pickles, brats and mini-doughnuts, then barf on my way back to the car, conveniently located just seventeen blocks from the festivities.

In anticipation of all this fun, I made a couple of calls last week -- only to find out that several of my favorite vendors will not be participating this year. For starters, Sally Rock and Dale Goin, who operate the Philadelphia Filly cheesesteak cart on the 16th Street Mall and have been selling their cheesesteaks at the Taste since its modern-day inception 22 years ago, are sitting this one out. That stunned me. In years past, the Philadelphia Filly cart was always one of the easiest to find, because it had a choice location (owing to its seniority) smack dab in the center of the Inferno-esque food zone and was usually marked by a line of hungry, wild-eyed cheesesteak addicts that stretched all the way to Longmont. The lines for the porta-potties at Woodstock were shorter, and the crowds waiting for that last helicopter ride off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon more civil. Although on some days another booth might have done more trade (like, say, the guy selling umbrellas a couple years back when a sudden downpour hit), you'd have to give away free hand jobs and pie to consistently do more business than the Filly did during its four days at the Taste.

On a good day, Rock says, they'd sell about 3,500 cheesesteaks. That's approximately 292 cheesesteaks an hour, five every minute, a cheesesteak sold every twelve seconds for twelve straight hours on a Saturday. Over the course of the event, the Filly would move about 8,000 sandwiches -- literally, a ton of beef. But they worked much too hard for the money that was left after the Taste took its cut. "We've figured it all out, Dale and I," she says. "We have to lift that ton of meat seven times during the course of the Taste. It's just too much."

They'd already told Dean Menos, head of the Taste of Colorado, that they were pulling out when they got an idea. They realized that the space they already pay for -- the space where they park their cart every weekday at 16th and Broadway -- is going to be right outside one of the Taste's main gates. And at that space, they can take actual money rather than the tickets the Taste uses. "We can do nowhere near the volume," Rock explains, "but it's conceivable that we could turn the same profit." And they might even get some sleep. "At the Taste, we'd have to get there so early in the morning to get set up," she says. "With the cart, if we want to open it at eleven, we have to get there ten minutes before."

At least the Filly will be nearby should I have a hankering for a cheesesteak. But more than a dozen other local vendors have also pulled out this year, including 1515. Last year, owner Gene Tang explains, he had to close down his actual restaurant at 1515 Market Street just so he could staff his booth at the Taste, and far from collecting a big, fat check, he lost money on the event. "It was a lot of work and not necessarily a moneymaking thing," Tang says. "It was a big loss."

Samba Room has pulled out as well, because it "wasn't our crowd," says manager Oscar Venegas. And besides, the restaurant lost money on the deal, too. Damascus Grill, J's Noodles, Kokoro, Masalaa and Big Mike's BBQ won't be at the Taste, either.

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