Forest Park threw a party Sunday night, serving up a combination of food, art and music during the 8th Annual Progressive Dinner and Arts al Fresco on Madison Street. More than 200 roving epicures sampled different courses at various restaurants while taking in the sights and sounds of sidewalk artists.
The crowds for this annual soiree are certainly merry, but organizers and participants say they are seeing less of them. In recent years ticket sales for the Progressive Dinner have fallen off significantly, but pinning down the cause has been tricky.
“We think this is a unique event,” Executive Director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development Laurie Kokenes said. “The whole purpose is to bring people to Madison Street. Most people who attend the event seem to love going from one spot to another for the different courses of their meal. It’s a great day to drive traffic and to showcase our restaurants and businesses.”
The event, which was created by the Forest Park Main Street Redevelopment Association, has annually benefited Forest Park as an invaluable promotion that draws interested visitors and residents. But the audience is shrinking. Compared to just a few years ago, the Progressive Dinner now draws roughly half the number of participants.
“This is not a profitable event for us,” Kokenes said. “Perhaps it’s partly due to the economy. I also think people are just busier these days. I can’t say for sure, though. The sluggish economy is affecting everywhere. It really has nothing to do with Madison Street. Our businesses are doing well.”
In promoting the Progressive Dinner, the chamber highlighted that Forest Park was voted “Best in Neighborhood Dining” in an online Chicago Tribune poll earlier this year. Organizers were optimistic that the online traffic would translate, but Kokenes said the chamber didn’t have the money to capitalize on the opportunity.
“We did list on Metromix and other publications, so we reached to the outside community,” Kokenes said. “But, we didn’t have the dollars for this event to run a $1,300 ad in the Chicago Tribune. Realistically, we can only really accommodate 400 people or so at this event anyway.”
According to Kokenes, the first six years of the restaurant-hopping dinner attracted around 400 people. The turnout has dropped to approximately 200 people in 2007 and 2008.
Healy’s Westside manager Mike Martin, who has been a part of the Progressive Dinner for several years, said he’s taking the ebb in stride.
“We used to get more people per seating for this event,” Martin said. “It’s almost cut in half from three or four years ago. I don’t know if it’s because there are maybe more restaurants or the event is not as popular. I’m not sure really, but the people that come tend to really enjoy it. I think people love being able to try food from different places.”
While business has been generally slower this month, Martin noted that July is typically not a peak period.
Unlike other events in town, Kokenes said the Progressive Dinner is not a fundraiser, but simply an opportunity to generate interest that will bring business to Madison.
“Some events like Summerfest are run for profit, as well as for other reasons like a promotional and fun day for Forest Park,” she said. “With the Progressive Dinner, we’re really not making any money. It’s a nice community event to drive traffic onto Madison Street.”
Art Sundry, owner of cafe De Lucca and a past president of Main Street, said the event is very beneficial to the community.
“We think it introduces new people to three or four places on Madison in one visit,” Sundry said. “It also gets locals together for another good time.”
Skrine Chops, Jimmy’s Place, O’Sullivan’s, Healy’s Westside, Cocina Lobos, Shanahan’s, Francesca’s Fiore and Flavour Cooking School also participated in the dinner.
“We definitely try to put our best foot forward so people will be favorably impressed to come back and visit us another day,” Sundry said. “We’re really proud of what we have done [in Forest Park], and we want to keep it going.”
Despite the slumping numbers, the Progressive Dinner continues to draw interest from people all over Chicagoland. Last year, Kokenes said participants from 22 other communities attended. She estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the attendees were from Forest Park.
“Since the first year I came [here], I’ve always wanted to come back,” said Forest Park resident Jennifer Murray, who has attended three Progressive Dinner events. “It’s a blast. You meet new people and you get to experience some great restaurants. The choices of restaurants and chefs are unbelievable. It’s like having a little Taste of Chicago without all the hassle.”
John Novak, a member of the Guitar Circle of Chicago quartet, who provided street-side entertainment, praised Forest Park’s business district.
“I live in the city and this is really a nice little business district,” he said. “There are lots of restaurants and shops. I grew up in the suburbs so I’m not unfamiliar with this terrain. The reason I like Forest Park is because it’s so close to the city.”
Leslie Mackowiak, of Joliet, was part of village Commissioner Martin Tellalian’s dining group.
“Marty invited me and I definitely wanted to come back,” Mackowiak said. “I enjoyed it very much last year. The planning of the event is very nice.”
Cheryl Ann Spran, a pastel artist at the event, remains impressed with the development of Madison Street.
“Forest Park is the place to be,” Spran, who lives in LaGrange Park, said. “Whether it’s a pair of shoes or an appetizer, you’re going to save a few bucks compared to downtown prices.”