Fair Game

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.


Taste of Colorado

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.

Big Mike had one big reason for not coming back: Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que. The multi-state barbecue chain out of Minnesota was undercutting prices, taking up premium real estate and throwing around a lot of advertising and sponsorship money. "I can't compete with that," Mike "Big Mike" McCrea says. "I'm just a little guy, and I can't compete with that." Big Mike's best year was the one when his booth was near that of Trinity Grill, which had been cooking up turkey legs at the Taste for more than two decades. But Trinity Grill won't be back this year, either. "We decided, based on our lack of revenue last year, that it wouldn't be a good idea to go back again," says manager Steve Gjevre.

Trinity's owner, Tom Walls, met with Menos just a couple of weeks ago, and Menos tried to get Walls to reconsider. But he refused. "The decision was made last year, a couple of weeks after the event," Gjevre explains. "Tom said, 'No. We're never doing this again.'"

Trinity Grill had been part of the Taste since 1985. Back then, the restaurant would purchase fifteen to twenty tons of turkey legs (an entire eighteen-wheeler full) and sell out before the close of the festivities on Monday. But last year, Trinity got yanked from its regular spot and stuck in a corner, and was left with 8,800 pounds of frozen or partially cooked turkey legs -- almost five tons -- as well as a big, black hole in the checkbook: a $20,000 loss, according to my calculations, rather than the twenty large it would customarily make twenty years ago.

(A funny story: With all that leftover food and Hurricane Katrina ravaging the Gulf, Gjevre thought it might be nice to donate what he had to FEMA. He had a truck ready to head out to the airport; all he needed was someone to see that the stuff actually made it onto a relief flight. But FEMA refused it. It was Labor Day weekend, after all, and all the people who could make those kinds of decisions were either on vacation or unavailable. Trinity ended up donating the entire shipment to the Denver Rescue Mission, which was more than happy to get it.)

Gjevre isn't thrilled about Famous Dave's, either, saying that the Taste organizers "kinda played favorites with the new barbecue joint in town." Which brings up another question: What's a company out of Minnesota doing at the Taste of Colorado in the first place? "That's another instance that pissed me off," Big Mike says. "There's all these people coming in who aren't from Colorado and pushing the little guys out. That's not how it's supposed to be."

The cheesesteak concession abandoned by the Philadelphia Filly has been taken over by Mile High Phillys and Indian Tacos, which is actually a second location for the Austin-based group behind RoRo's Funnel (the requisite funnel cake stand), according to Rock. How was RoRo's able to fill the space so quickly? It bought a bunch of equipment (flat grills and such) off of Rock and Goin and plans to pre-make its sandwiches. As for the Indian tacos, they're going to be made out of deep-fried pita bread. I'm not looking forward to that.

Panda Express has a big presence at the Taste, and though I don't know where that outfit is based, it sure ain't Colorado. Ditto for Papa John's Pizza. And Southwest Kettle Corn is in this year because the organizers thought they needed another place selling kettle corn, even though Southwest is from Phoenix. For all I know, there could be more out-of-state vendors, too. Some of them are difficult (read: impossible) to get ahold of, since many are just concessionaires, making their living in gypsy fashion, going from town to town and fair to fair selling their cotton candy and salted nuts and whatnot. And since the Taste of Colorado is a big fair (a huge fair, actually, around which some of these people base their entire nomad economy), I don't fault anyone for wanting to get in on the action.

Except Dean Menos, maybe.

But when I finally get Menos on the blower (just a week from the start of the Taste), he sounds like a good guy, a veteran who's been doing his thing for Downtown Denver Events (a non-profit part of the Downtown Denver Partnership) for twenty-odd years. According to Menos, an average of eight to fifteen vendors leave every year, which makes 2006 high-average in terms of turnover, but doesn't make it extraordinary. "It's a pretty big event, and expectations are high," Menos says. "Over the last couple years, weather has not been our friend. You know, it's a free event -- free admission -- and sometimes you can't recover from something like this. People just go away."

He considers all Taste vendors -- past and present -- to be partners. "I talk to all these people," he says. "We want it to be a success for everyone." In the fine-dining area, the departure of Wolfgang Puck (which has closed both its downtown and Cherry Creek outposts), 1515 and Samba Room allowed the organizers to bring in Panzano, Venice, Via and the Smokehouse Tavern. "This is the normal course, the natural way of the restaurant business," Menos continues. "I think it's a little more of a balanced playing field here because there are so many restaurants represented. People will spend their money where they think they're going to get the best food and the best value. It's truly a reflection of what the public chooses to buy."

As for accusations of out-of-state vendors coming in, Menos says, "We're always looking for -- and will always give preference to -- Colorado restaurants." But sometimes Colorado restaurateurs aren't interested. When Philadelphia Filly left, Menos says they asked several local restaurants if they wanted to fill the spot. None did.

As for the Taste's cut of the proceeds, Menos says it all goes back into the Taste. "We view this event as a kind of forty-plus-hour fiscal year," he explains. Although the fees may be a bit higher than at other festivals, the Taste also provides its vendors, and guests, with more services, hiring somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people over the course of the event.

Bottom line, the Taste is a huge amount of work under grueling conditions. The hours are long, the work demanding, the ultimate payoff a crapshoot. In short, it's a four-day weekend that exactly mirrors the restaurant industry as a whole. There are winners and losers, guys who make it and guys who don't, good years and bad.

The only big difference is that come Monday, it'll all be over -- until Taste of Colorado 2007.

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