After a two-year hiatus, Downtown Oak Park’s signature dine-around event made a triumphant return this summer. Thursday Night Out, held every week from June through August, is known for drawing a crowd of food and music lovers and 2022 was no exception. The summer event series generated more than $200,000 in revenue with nearly 8,000 attendees over the course of the series.
“I just think people were so ready to come out,” said Shanon Williams, executive director of Downtown Oak Park. “Even though the event ended at 9 p.m. we couldn’t get people to leave. They just wanted to sit and soak up the atmosphere.”
Williams attributes the increased attendance in part to “people being done with COVID” and was especially excited to see new faces in the crowd. She noted there was a significant increase in young families and people new to the area spending their Thursday evenings on Marion Street in the heart of the village.
Word of mouth drives attendance at the family friendly event which first started in 2006. In the early days of TNO, organizers would sell 30 booklets a night. This year saw attendees purchasing 600-700 books weekly providing a major financial boost to weary restaurants in the DTOP district and eclipsing peak 2019 sales.
Roughly $23 of every $25 booklet sold, or approximately 92% of sales, went directly back to the participating restaurants. The remaining funds help Downtown Oak Park cover a portion of the $50,000 cost of executing the series of music filled evenings.
First time participant Kyuramen “slammed it” this year according to Williams who praised their “outstanding” food. The ramen shop had a coveted centralized location on Marion Street and developed a system for quickly serving the gathering crowds. They served generous portions of popcorn chicken, steamed pork bao buns, crispy shrimp tempura and fried shishito peppers.
“Al Mancini kicked butt this year,” said Williams. “He was so proud and told me it was the best year ever for Thursday Night Out!”
The veteran restaurateur and owner of Tres Sorelle Ristorante, 1111 Lake St., made a big impression by serving up giant pizza slices, pumpkin ravioli and perennially popular mozzarella sticks to TNO attendees. Like most eateries, Mancini’s Italian restaurant struggled through the pandemic and the ups and downs took a toll, but TNO made a big difference to the independent restaurant.
“I was one of the pilgrims,” said Mancini. “I was one of the very first 10 or maybe 12 businesses that ever participated in Thursday Night Out when it started, but I saw that this was going to grow to be big. This year I had people lining up outside and I would collect 300-350 coupons a night.”
Mancini approached Thursday Night out like it was an advertising campaign and always gave people a sample that was a better value than they expected. His generous portion sizes and customer service was rewarded was repeat business and full paying customers.
“Look, this is what we pay Downtown Oak Park for, and they have given me my money’s worth, there’s no doubt about that,” said Mancini. “They have helped me build up my business. They have helped us push through the pandemic and will help us get out of it.”
Looking ahead to next summer, Williams promises to “level up” Thursday Night Out” by reconfiguring the layout for the event to allow for more tables and seating. She also plans to feature one band and predominantly position them in a central location while leaving plenty of room for families to gather by the fountains with their children.
“I think it is just great to be in a community that comes out to support local businesses like ours does,” said Williams. “It felt like we were turning a corner and people wanted to come out to share that feeling.”
TNO 2022 was sponsored by Byline Bank.
Who was there?
Cold Stone Creamery
Careful Peach Boutique
Hecho en Oak Park
Katy’s Dumpling House
Harold’s Shrimp and Chicken
The Little Gem
Nando’s Peri Peri
Tacos el Tio #4
Sugar Fixé Pâtisserie
Wells Street Popcorn