By Sara Ruberg
CINCINNATI, OH.– Half a million people packed the streets of downtown Cincinnati last year over Memorial Day Weekend for The Taste of Cincinnati, a free culinary arts festival that features local restaurants, food trucks, performers and businesses. This year, for the first time in more than four decades, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the streets will be empty, and the festival that started on Memorial Day weekend in 1979 will take place online.
This past weekend, April 3-5, festival goers in Cincinnati engaged with a virtual version of “The Taste,” which is what some locals call it. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the organizers featured live performances, cooking demos from local restaurants, and short videos from brewers. The event was meant to help connect local people with their local businesses until the in-person festival can be held on Independence Day weekend.
“These are small businesses,” Lori Salzarulo, a senior manager at Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and an organizer for the Taste of Cincinnati, said. “We’re really trying to help push money back to them as quickly as possible, just to get them through the next month or so… Our hope is that people will help to support all of those vendors through tipping online or ordering food and just enjoying each other’s company as much as they can.”
The pandemic has hurt many small restaurants around the Cincinnati area, even as many of them offer carryout and delivery. Alfio’s Buon Cibo, an Argentinian and Italian restaurant in Hyde Park, is one of the restaurants that have suffered as a result of the closures. Chef Alfio Gulisano, the owner, says that about 70% of profits are gone, and he has had to cut back from his usual 25 staff members to eight.
Gulisano was one of the featured cooks demoing his skills last weekend. He showed viewers how to make his family recipe for short-rib ravioli.
“In this time, we all need some hope,” Guilsano said, welcoming the online version of The Taste of Cincinnati and understanding that the festival has to be postponed until July. “It gives a glimpse of hope that at some point we will go back to reality.”
In another part of Cincinnati, in East Walnut Hills, the restaurant O Pie O, another staple of Taste of Cincinnati, is donating lunches to students who are now food insecure. The restaurant owners are hoping that their initiative will gain publicity, as they worry everyday whether they will be able to continue the program with “razor thin” donations, according to their co-founder Lou Ginocchio.
Performers who went live this weekend from their homes were able to collect tips through payment apps that were in the captions during their performances. Sarah Ratcliff, a 26-year-old local musician, says she was able to garner some attention and make a few tips during her livestream.
“I see a lot of local musicians and DJs streaming live and since a majority of everyone is staying home… it gives that extra exposure to those that are normally unavailable to make it to a ‘gig,’” Ratcliff said. “That and everyone has shown a lot of support to everyone during this so people will go out of their way to watch and listen and see what’s going on with everyone else.”
Thousands of viewers engaged with Virtual Taste of Cincinnati this weekend. Trisha Mack, a 38-year-old Blue Ash resident, said her family watched the cooking demos and performers on Facebook. She says the event has inspired her to try some new recipes and also order carryout from a local restaurant, El Vaquero Mexican Restaurant.
“I actually think this will give the public a chance to get to know the restaurants more,” Mack said. “I think we may even see a bigger crowd at the Taste of Cincinnati in July.”
Mack, along with many others in the comment sections of The Taste of Cincinnati’s social media accounts, says she will be attending the festival in the summer.