Behind Times Square Food Extravaganza, Platoons of Helpers
TIMES SQUARE — Gary Winkler said he would move the portable toilets himself.
Barely an hour after dawn, roughly 11 hours before the start of the Times Square Alliance's annual Taste of Times Square, the alliance's vice president for events and programs stood in the rain, seeking another space for four Porta-Johns that had been blocked by a sidewalk shed.
Nearby, nearly a dozen workers, their T-shirts soaked, had started erecting the event's main tent — the first of 75 they would build that day.
Winkler simply laughed and shrugged.
"This is what it is," he said, then walked to confer with the toilets' deliveryman.
The hurdle was just the first of many that Winkler and his staff surmounted at the Taste of Times Square, a beast of a feast that's just one of 150 permitted events held in and around Times Square every year, and part of what alliance officials call the Big Five: New Year's Eve, Solstice, Valentine's Day and Broadway on Broadway.
As with all of the events, the Taste of Times Square is a massive undertaking: 53 restaurants from in and around Times Square and 25 musical acts set-up shop beneath 75 tents on Broadway and on West 46th Street between Broadway and Ninth Avenue. They remain there for four hours on some of the world's busiest streets through the height of the Monday evening rush hour.
"A lot of these big food festivals, they happen in an empty park," said Tim Tompkins, president of Times Square Alliance. "Here, there all these other things: there is traffic and cars and a full busy work day happening all around us.
"So it's even more complex logistically to try to make something happen in a place that's already so intensely busy," he added.
Platoons of security officers, maintenance and sanitation workers, event staff and volunteers — more than 100 in all — worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to run the event. The challenges they faced were myriad: Heavy rain interrupted much of the set up, forcing them to erect the booths and tents faster than ever once the storm passed; a contractor's van had illegally parked where the main event tent was supposed to go; and, minutes before the event began, a water-filled display case for Coca-Cola sprung a leak (solution: lots of duct tape).
Then, once the event was under way, groups stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and handcarts, ready to deliver ice, water and other supplies to any vendors that ran low.
"This is what we do, and what we love to do," said Damian Santucci, Times Square Alliance manager for public space and Winkler's lieutenant at the Taste of Times Square. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
The event is emblematic of the kind of set up and take-down the alliance does throughout the year for events large and small, from art exhibits to surprise concerts to the New Year's Eve ball-drop. And while prep work for the Big Five can take all day, set up and take-down for other events is often completed in a couple of hours, if not sooner.
"It's amazing," Tompkins said. "It's a testimony to the energy of the staff."
What's more, he added, Taste of Times Square is in many ways the biggest operation of them all.
"New Year's Eve, it's this global event that's organized around a one-minute event," Tompkins said. "Taste of Times Square runs for four hours."
The event, meanwhile, offers more than standard street-fair sausages and kebabs, showcasing not merely the Times Square chain restaurants, but the assorted eateries along Restaurant Row, as well.
"People have gotten used to street fairs that don't represent what's good about New York — 12 different kinds of kielbasa, and 20 different kinds of tube socks, but it's basically all the same thing on every street in New York blocking up traffic," he said. "Here, you have 53 different restaurants and you have more and better live music than you have in many downtown cities happening all at once."
Maureen and Ed Fuller, visiting from Boston, couldn't agree more.
"This is delicious — would you like to try some?" she offered, grasping a layered pastry from one of the vendors stationed along Broadway. "To be able to walk through Times Square and try all this and do this outdoors, this is fun."
The event lasted through 9 p.m., and take-down took little more than an hour. But the street didn't remain clear for long: By 11 p.m., contractors were already setting up on Broadway for another event taking place the following day, a "Step Up and Step Out" fashion event hosted by Gilette.