By Janice Kleinschmidt
Brian Mohrmann dismisses the notion that raising a 40-by-120-foot tent on 10-foot legs to accommodate the 18-hands-high Budweiser Clydesdales presents a challenge. For the general manager of Big Top Productions, it’s all in a day’s work—even when that work involves the annual Taste of Chicago, a 10-day festival that attracts 3.6 million attendees. In fact, Mohrmann says, “Considering the size of it, it’s fairly easy, because we have been doing it for so long.”
“The size” means providing about 200 tents for vendors, sponsors and, for the last two years, the Clydesdales. Big Top has been the Taste of Chicago’s tent supplier for more than half of the event’s 27-year history after winning a city bid. Ninety percent of the vinyl tents manufactured by Big Top are maintained for its own use, including music festivals. “We have done events as far away as Mississippi and New York State, but typically in the tri-state area of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and some in Michigan,” Mohrmann says.
The Taste of Chicago takes place over a three-city-block area in Grant Park and adjacent streets. “Basically, we set the whole thing up in about four days, and the majority of that is in one day,” Mohrmann says. “The time constraints are a big thing. We can set up some of the tents that are not in the street a little earlier. A majority of the tents have to go up in the street after they close them on Sunday. We have to be done late on Sunday.” Other vendors start filling tents with restaurant equipment, display stands and other furnishings on Monday; the festival starts the following Friday.
One year, Big Top was unable to set up in the grass area early. “We had to do everything all at once, working for 36 hours straight,” Mohrmann recalls. “Nowadays, we know the setup. I start planning at least a month in advance, making certain we have the proper tent tops and proper colors that [the city] requests.” This year, restaurant tents had to be all white, while ticket booth tents were green and white.
Tents for the Taste of Chicago range from 10 by 10 feet to 66 by 66 feet for chef demonstrations. This year’s festival also required 20-by-20-foot sponsor tents with high peaks to distinguish them from vendors. All are anchored with stakes driven into the grass or drilled into the asphalt in the street. Fifteen installers work all four days of the setup, and another 20 are brought in for Sunday setup. A week later, teardown starts at 10 p.m. Sunday so the streets are clear by 6 a.m. Monday; the remaining tents are taken down by 2 p.m.
The Windy City has been good to Big Top over the years, though Mohrmann has heard of one bad-weather incident. “The year before I started, they had a bad storm come through and knock out some of the tents,” he says. “They had to work the night through for the next morning. I guess we have been lucky.”