Participants savor, judge soups in South Side contest

Natalie Bell, The Pitt News

There are plenty of bar crawlers in the South Side on any given Saturday night, but last Saturday afternoon there was a different crawl: one for soup.
From noon to 3 p.m., a bevy of soup tasters wandered the streets eating out of special biodegradable bowls and spoons. They held bright orange maps in their hands and around their necks they wore royal-blue lanyards — with cards that got punched at each stop. Soup locations were scattered from 11th Street to SouthSide Works, with orange and red balloons marking participating shops.

In the 2011 South Side Soup Contest, 25 restaurants served up small portions of their soup to 1,200 attendees. After taste-testing as many restaurants as they could, participants voted on four categories: best soup, runner-up, best vegetarian and most creative.

Each restaurant served its soup inside a different South Side business to draw attention to both the eatery and the store or bank.

The South Side Local Development Company, a nonprofit dedicated to the area, presented the 7th-annual event and some of the proceeds benefit the Brashear Association, a group that sponsors after-school programs for children, senior day care, job placement services and food pantries.

That’s why, in addition to the $14.99 ticket prices, attendees were asked to bring a nonperishable food item to restock its food pantry.
In addition to benefiting a community organization, the event also introduces people to restaurants and shops they might have passed by or never had the opportunity to venture into when hitting the bars.

“It’s a win-win because we’re doing something good for the neighborhood ... It’s also raising money for the community, it’s also a marketing opportunity for us,” said Mike Kotyk, owner of the Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe on 2518 East Carson St.

Last year, his restaurant’s Magic Mushroom Soup came in second to Yo Rita’s Roasted Chestnut Bisque. This year, the cafe hoped to take first overall in the contest, but instead won Best Vegetarian for its Cheddar Peddlar Brewhaha — a rich, creamy combination of tangy cheddar and beer produced by Troegs Brewing Company in Harrisburg.

After last year’s unprecedented crowd of 1,600, the event organizers decided to cap off the event at 1,200 to be sure they had enough soup for everyone.
“The problem is it’s a lot of soup, and it’s a Saturday and that’s one of the busiest nights of the week to begin with. So to have to prepare soup for 1,200 people,” said Jennifer Jeffers, even committee chair and Brashear Association board member. “That’s a lot; that’s a big request ... It’s pretty generous of [the restaurants] to cook all this soup and take their staff away.”

After serving last year’s large crowds, Double Wide Grill soup chef Barbara Baur learned to be more prepared to serve her soup. This year, the dish she made for the restaurant — located at 2339 East Carson St. — was Jamaican Pepper Pot soup — a spicy dish including chorizo sausage and Swiss chard.
“You think you have so much there and suddenly the line is so long and your ladle’s scraping the bottom,” she said, describing how busy the event can become.

She served her soup from The Headboard Shop, an East Carson Street store selling skateboarding and snowboarding equipment.

The manager, Shawn Watson, said that though the store’s business doesn’t necessarily increase the day of the contest, it does bring awareness about the shop. As one of the soup eaters walked out, he inquired about the price of the snowboarding boots displayed in the shop.

“I kind of like the idea of a retailer and restaurant pairing together ... It’s just something that wouldn’t normally happen; you usually get soup in a restaurant,” Watson said.

After the contest, many of the shops involved were full of people who noticed merchandise while in line for soup. Jupe Boutique, also on East Carson Street that sells clothing for a young professional crowd, was full of people after the contest.

“It definitely brings people back,” said Cara Moody, the shop’s co-owner. She added that many of the people who come back after the contest are people who otherwise might have passed up the store.