Taste of Cincinnati is one of this city’s established traditions. Every Memorial Day, crowds that now reach 550,000 people try out food from Cincinnati restaurants, just as they have for 41 years.
Though there are aspects of Taste you can count on every year, this tradition has to be wide open to change. Over the past decade or so, the organizers have changed the event a little bit every year.
“We want to make sure the event reflects Cincinnati’s food culture,” said Brendon Cull, COO of Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, which puts on the event.
Adds Cynthia Oxley, the chamber’s director of community events, “We want to attract new people, so every year we give them something new.”
Both goals call for innovation. Cincinnati’s food scene is a changing, developing system, with new stuff popping up all the time. Taste has to keep up to stay relevant.
A thriving food scene is an important part of one of the chamber’s goals: helping local business attract talent.
“When a job candidate comes to town, that interview is important,” said Cull. “But so is what happens after, whether they’ll find a great restaurant or see a neighborhood they like.”
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Taste not only reflects what’s going on in local food, it boosts it. The event can be a big opportunity for restaurants, food trucks and breweries, because it’s possible to make money and, with more certainty, get a lot of exposure and meet new customers.
So when craft beer became popular, Taste organizers added craft beer. When the food truck craze hit, they made room for them.
“Food trucks approached us in 2013. We had six or seven that year,” said Cull. “Now they have their own section.”
This year, there are 19. Local brewer Rhinegeist is sponsoring the food truck alley, and there will be over 100 beers to drink, with over half of them from local breweries.
Now, there’s a new kind of food entrepreneur. Many local go-getters have thought about starting a food business of some sort. With a recognition that it isn’t easy getting started from scratch, incubator kitchens have been created to help.
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Taste of Cincinnati has incorporated that trend by working with Findlay Kitchen, the incubator kitchen and entrepreneurial program run by Findlay Market.
It’s the third year that the kitchen will have its own area at the event, called Taste of Findlay. Seventeen small food companies will spend one, two or three days there.
“They can get their feet wet, get incredible exposure and PR,” said Marianne Hamilton, director of innovation at Findlay Market. “What an awesome partner the chamber has been. They’ve tapped into the incubator model to show Cincinnati the underground food scene.”
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The collaboration opens up participation in Taste to a larger group of people. The Findlay participants include women, immigrants and minorities. Often, they offer some kind of food that isn’t readily available otherwise.
This year there will be soul food, healthy frozen pops, arepas, vegan food, schnitzels, smoothies and Jamaican food.
“They can make some money. depending on how fast they can crank it out,” said Hamilton.
They work on making an efficient menu, and working out cost and price.
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The incubator model doesn’t apply just to food vendors. The entertainment lineup also is supporting new performing artists. The Cincinnati Music Accelerator, which aims to help musicians learn how to market themselves and be business-savvy about their music career, is a partner this year. Some of their artists will be playing on the five stages at Taste.
Some small businesses feel ready to take on a booth in the main part of the event. Mahope, graduate of another incubator, Mortar, is in the event for the first time, with Cambodian tacos that took a Best of Taste award.
For several years, that competition was determined by visits to restaurants. It’s gone back to a judging event at Findlay Kitchen.
“I think having the Best of Taste event held in one place means everyone can see each other’s food, and they really up their game,” said Oxley.
She makes sure veteran participants help the new ones.
“Tickle Pickle is great at that. They’re phenomenal and lending a hand to others. So are old timers like Izzy’s.”
Just Q’in barbecue will be at the event in a standard booth for the first time. It represents another innovation that’s getting started: restaurants as social enterprises.
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Matt Cuff, owner of Just Q’n, has transformed his Walnut Hills barbecue restaurant into a place where people with barriers to employment can get work. That might be homelessness, poverty, lack of transportation, criminal record.
“We give them wrap-around services. They bring challenges to work that other people don’t experience,” said Cuff.
They’re bringing their smoked meats to Taste. They’re taking on a big job. Two 12-hour days and a 10-hour day serving hordes of people is high-level restaurant work. They’ll close the restaurant. Cuff said it’s about building a team.
“A lot comes out of being in the trenches together,” he said.
One of the biggest innovations that makes Taste of Cincinnati different each year is simply that there is more, better food in the city.
“The complexity of the food has really been elevated,” said Cull. “There’s going to be some really creative and beautiful street food.”
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Bubble tea, ravioli and gelato were among the most delicious tastes of the month.
Polly Campbell, [email protected]