Souper Saturday a warm celebration on Pittsburgh's South Side

Marsha S. Morgenstern

From creamy bisques to down-home comfort foods like chicken noodle soup, who doesn't love soup? Every year, nearly two dozen mouthwatering varieties warm tummies at the South Side Soup Contest in Pittsburgh, PA.

This unique event provides an opportunity to try new things while checking out the area’s top retailers, restaurants, art galleries and more. It is the perfect way for families to warm up on a cool day.

The seventh annual South Side Soup Contest takes place Saturday, Feb. 19, from noon to 3 p.m., and if you want to go, hurry and register because last year's event sold out in January, according to Jennifer Jeffers, event chair.

"It's winter time. What's better than a hot little cup of soup, sampling what these restaurants specialize in, and getting into shops that you may have never noticed before?" she says. "The South Side has a reputation for being a nighttime destination. We want to showcase that there is so much more to offer."

Each year, winning soup entries have great names and big flavors to match. Yo Rita with Chef Kevin Sousa's Roasted Chestnut Bisque took home the 2010 People's Choice contest award. Magic Mushroom, served by Over the Bar Bicycle Café (OTB), came in as runner-up. Caffe Davio's Lobster Risotto and Café Du Jour's Stewin Segal's White Bean & Pork Soup Under Siege by Arugula Pesto won honorable mentions.

During this event, restaurants serve up their flavorful creations at nearby retailers rather than at the restaurants themselves. "So people get to see places like Dave's Music Mine, Silver Eye Center for Photography, or Fireborn Studios," says Rick Belloli, executive director of the South Side Local Development Corporation.

Sometimes, businesses and restaurants are paired based on proximity. "You don't want the restaurants having to go too far to get more soup," Jeffers explains.

Other times, businesses and restaurants pair together on their own. "Last year, Over the Bar Bicycle Café partnered with REI, which was a perfect fit," Jeffers says. REI sells everything needed for outdoor recreation, and the South Side location boasts an indoor climbing wall.

Going Green

Organizers have increased their efforts to minimize the contest's environmental impact. Last year, Pittsburgh-based Green Gears Pedicabs provided green transportation at the event, which takes place from 10th St. all the way down to 28th St. Pedicabs can be described as rickshaws pulled by bicycles. "We want to get people through the South Side and really experience as much as possible of the neighborhood," Jeffers says.

Soup bowls and spoons used by the patrons and judges are starch-based and 100 percent compostable. "It really fits with where the neighborhood is going and evolving," Belloli says. The South Side is home to environmentally-sensitive retailers like E House Company, retailer of eco-friendly products from clothing to housecleaning items, and Little Earth Productions, known for their purses and belts made of recycled materials.

Environmental organizations like the Green Building Alliance, Conservation Consultants and the Pennsylvania Resources Council are also located in the South Side.

For a Good Cause

According to Belloli, the soup contest has evolved as a fundraiser for the Brashear Association Food Pantry. "The event financially benefits the food pantry and the soup contest has really helped strengthen people's connection with the organization," he says.

The Brashear Association is a community service agency serving South Pittsburgh for 93 years. "Our ties to the South Side go back to 1917," says Hugh Brennan, executive director of the association. "The food pantry operation is one component of our work. We operate two community food pantries throughout the year and serve roughly 1,000 people between those two pantries."

The soup contest has been a great way to not only raise funds and garner support for the operation, but to also call attention to the needs of South Pittsburgh residents. "The donations that people bring are impressive. Some people bring entire bags of groceries," Jeffers says.

The event has grown exponentially over the years in terms of attendance and participation. According to Belloli, about 390 people attended in 2004, raising about $900 for the food pantry and collecting close to 400 canned food donations. Last year, organizers limited the event to 1,200 people. "We were starting to get close to 1,800 attendees and it was difficult for the restaurants to keep up with the amount of soup demanded," Belloli says.

By limiting participants, organizers hope to make the event a more enjoyable experience, with shorter lines and less of a chance that samples will run out.

Make a day out of it

Jeffers attributes the event's popularity in part to food shows like "Top Chef." "We can be our own Padma and Tom Colicchio," Jeffers jokes, referring to judges from the "Top Chef" program, which airs on Bravo. "People really get into the judging towards the very end. Last year, they were throwing ballots at me as we were shutting down the station, asking 'Who won?'" she says.

Participating businesses offer discounts, coupons, giveaways, takeaways and other promotional items throughout the day. Jeffers finds that people end up staying in the South Side long after the contest has ended. "What we would do is have a bit of soup, stop at a bar, have a drink, or stop at a restaurant and then go shopping. It just became this daylong activity and it keeps getting bigger and bigger," she says.

Whether you are a foodie, shopper, or just want to support a good cause, the South Side Soup Contest is a great event for families and people of all ages. Those lucky enough to reserve their spot this year are sure to have an enjoyable day that warms both stomachs and hearts.