From our humble start 10 years ago, we're now recognized by Yankee Magazine as a top event in New England! Each year on the first Sunday in October, restaurants and discernible foodies come to Connecticut to determine who has the best chowder, soup and bisque in New England. Chowdafest is a true people's choice event where our champions are determined by people like you and us who love great food.
It all started with a spoon as I attended a fun, local fundraiser in Kinnebunkport ME 14 years or so ago. It was held in the basement of a local library. Being a self professed "chowda head", I had to see what it was all about. I paid my fee and was given a plastic spoon with a friendly but stern scolding from a nice old woman "Don't lose your spoon! Don't accidentally throw it out! Keep it the entire time! We're not giving you any more. We're not made of plastic here. Pretend you're at home. You wouldn't throw out your spoon would you" Then she smiled.
They gave you a poker chip to put in the bucket for the chowder you liked best. They had six or so entries. I walked away thinking something like this would be great in CT. Four years later, I decided to run a competition to help out some friends who owned restaurants and needed a better way to promote themselves as economic times we pretty bad. Well, if economic times are bad, that means charities are suffering too so I rented out the Unitarian Church in Westport and held our first event the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving as the church wasn't in use. One day just featured chowders and the next showcased soups. Hey, if you like chowder, you like soup & bisque too right? We would have held the event over one day but as nice as the church is, there wasn't enough room.
Well, the event was a popular as we thought and we designed it so it could grow but I didn't imagine it would grow so quickly as by the third year, we had to move the event to a bigger facility. I had thought of holding it at the local high school but the local middle school actually had more room and was nicer. We also moved the date from Thanksgiving weekend to Super Bowl Sunday. It was a great fit as there's great synergy between a bowl of soup and the "souper" bowl of chowder festivals. It's also a dead day for our restaurants as most people stay at home until having people over or go over to friends to watch the game. It's an unofficial foodie kind of day and this gave people something to do during the day - the move was a touch down!
Another two years went by and we were busting at the seams again. Then a buddy of mine who worked at a 10,000 seat arena in nearby Bridgeport, suggested we move the event to the arena. Little did I know he wasn't kidding so I looked into it. When you have a cool event that's held on the Super Bowl, a sports arena enhanced the event even more and then caught the eye of everyone. So much so, we sold out the arena in 30 minutes and turned 3,000 cars away. On days at the arena were over. We needed to move Chowdafest outdoors to accommodate all it's fans.
We couldn't hold the event outdoors in mid winter so we moved the date to the first Sunday in October. Perfect timing as the weather starts comfort food season and it doesn't get any better than fall weather. It was then that many people told me that we had the best chowder festival in New England. While that was always the goal, the compliment hit me oddly as how could we be the best when great chowders from the rest of New England weren't involved. It's like the Yankees or Red Sox being world champions and yet, never playing anyone from the rest of the world.
So the quest for the best began and we spend months visiting the rest of New England in search of great chowder, soup and bisque to invite to the competition. Invitations are hard to come by as we limit event to just 40 award winning restaurants - we're a competition of the best of the best. We do invite one restaurant from New York which of course isn't part of New England but it seems only fair they are given a chance to defend their namesake Manhattan clam chowder. Oddly enough, it seems the rest of New England makes it better. We also invite "America's favorite chowder" which hails from Seattle Washington called Pike Place Chowder. They compete in chowder events all over the country to prove they make the best New England clam chowder and typically win. They've won our event the last two years beating New England restaurants right here in our backyard! Some restaurants complain but my retort is "up your game".
So we've been fortunate due to good planning, weather, great volunteers, award winning restaurants and terrific sponsors but hidden behind the scenes has always been helping the less fortunate along the way. Chowdafest remains committed to alleviating hunger. Food insecurity is solvable as we have enough food to feed all, it's just poorly distributed and wasted. We have supported food banks from day one but the past few years, we've been working with Food Rescue Us. A great non-profit that rescues food from restaurants, grocery stores and farms, then distributes it to the myriad of shelters that need it. You'd be surprised how many shelters there are. The charity fits us great as it's very sustainable - perfectly good food is no longer being thrown out and going to landfills and hungry mouths are being fed in the process - a win, win! This year our goal is to fund over a half million meals!
There's so much more to tell but will save that for the next 10 year recap. I do want to thank my wife & daughter who support this passion of mine along with my dear friends who volunteer and help make this all happen. Of course, thanks go to the restaurant friends I've made along the journey and both the business and personal relationships I now have with our incredible sponsors. Finally, to the hoards of fellow Chowda-heads who come with more and more friends each year - thank you!
- Jim Keenan