The crowd was the smallest for the Taste since 1986, when about 1.68 million attended, according to data provided by the Illinois Restaurant Association.
Vendors blamed the absence of a fireworks display, predictions of nasty weather and the lack of big-name musical acts for smaller crowds and lower sales.
But city officials touted the 10-day event as “a more family-friendly,” public safety success. Arrests at the Taste fell from 54 in 2010 to 29, and citations dropped from 102 to 82, Chicago police spokeswoman Lt. Maureen Biggane said.
Ticket sales and total revenue figures were not immediately available.
“Early projections may suggest a deficit on (the event revenue) side,” said Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner. “But the Taste has historically proven to have an economic impact far past the event gates.”
Fifty-nine restaurants participated this year, six more than last year, Maxey-Faulkner said. Those restaurants paid $3,000 to participate, compared to $4,000 in 2010. The Park District will collect 15 percent of their gross sales and donate 1 percent to charity.
In years past, the area around the city’s biggest summer party has seen violence, including multiple shootings, one fatal, in the Loop in 2008. This year, Chicago police assigned more plainclothes officers to the Taste.
The Park District focused more on local music than on big-name headliners, incorporating acts from four money-losing festivals that have been discontinued. The headliner Sunday, for example, was Greyson Chance, a 13-year-old who vaulted to stardom after a YouTube video of him performing a Lady Gaga song became an Internet sensation.
Nicole Neuhaus, manager of the Eli’s Cheesecake booth, said the musical acts were the problem. It was not the company’s worst year at the festival, she said, but it was worse than most.
“When Stevie Wonder and Santana were here, those were our best nights ever,” said Neuhaus, who has worked the company’s booth for 15 years. “When you cut back on stuff like that, it makes a huge difference.”
Billy Goat Tavern & Grill owner Sam Sianis, who has been at the event every year since 1979, suggested that the struggling economy might be to blame.
“The crowds are here,” said Sianis last weekend. “It seems to me like they’re very tight with the money. They eat, but not like they used to.”
The Taste closed most nights at 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than in past years. More significantly, some vendors said, the traditional fireworks at the Taste were dropped this year, and the food fest was not open on the Fourth of July as in previous years.
Instead, Navy Pier hosted a 15-minute fireworks display Monday. That show also drew fewer people than last year, said Jon Kaplan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
Lynn Sapp, who owns the Original Rainbow Cone ice cream parlor in Beverly, looked on last weekend while relatively sparse crowds strolled by her booth. In years past, Sapp said, the street would be packed with people.
“People want to be entertained,” Sapp said. “The two go hand in hand. They want their food, and they want to be entertained while they’re eating it.”