We're gonna need a bigger bowl: SoupFest expands in its fourth year

Andy Downing

In the days after SoupFest wrapped its third edition last February, organizers gathered for a postmortem, discussing what worked, what didn’t and how the event could continue to grow moving into 2021 and beyond. “Which was one of the first times it felt like we were doing something sort of professional,” said Evan Harris, whocofounded SoupFest alongside friends  Jake Sekas and the late Nick “Miklos” Battaglia, who died in November 2019 after ingesting drugs unknowingly laced with fentanyl. “We took some time and realized, ‘Hey, this is going to continue to grow. How do we keep making this thing bigger without losing the values of why we’re doing this and the reasoning behind it.”

Initially created as a joke and hosted in a Harrison West apartment, the event has since grown both in size (the 2020 iteration took place at Ace of Cups) and scope, taking on additional weight following the death of Battaglia at age 30. Last year, SoupFest raised more than $26,000 to establish a fund in Battaglia’s name with the Columbus Foundation to address food scarcity and income inequality, and in the coming months it intends to register as a nonprofit, further encoding this mission. At the same time, Harris doesn’t want to abandon the playful spirit in which SoupFest originated.

“It’s such a weird thing to balance such a stupid event that was created as a joke with what will hopefully continue to be a bigger and bigger music and culinary charity event in Columbus moving forward,” Harris said. “I’m not even sure exactly how we’re balancing it, aside from everything is just learning on the job.”

This learning process has been further upended by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which nearly led SoupFest organizers to cancel this year’s event before pivoting toa virtual model

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“When the coronavirus hit, we were put on hold and nobody knew how long this phase was going to last. Are we ever going to be able to hold an event again where we can share soup, or share meals with other people in a crowded room? And I think we’re all hopeful, but there were some moments there where it was like, ‘Maybe we just sit back and lick our wounds because SoupFest ain’t happening this year,’” Harris said of initial 2021 conversations, which started in earnest around July. “But in the restaurant world and elsewhere, everyone has had to adapt. So we sat there and brainstormed ideas of what we thought was feasible, and ways we could still grow.”

This year, along witha series of music performances from Bartees Strange, Christian Lee Hutson and more set to take place live on Instagram Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 4 through 6, organizers also created the first-ever SoupWeek, which launched yesterday and runs through Saturday, Feb. 6, featuring soup offerings from more than 50 local restaurants. This in addition toa newly launched SoupBox fundraiser, with proceeds from each limited edition package sold providing 40 meals to those in need viaNeighborhood Services, Inc. food pantry.

Collectively, these efforts have reaffirmed the spirit of community that Harris described as foundational to the event, even in a time when distancing has left many people feeling more isolated. “We were worried coming in to this year that it wasn’t going to be like what it used to be,” Harris said, pointing to the group photo that accompanied last year's Alive feature. “And there may not be a group photo like that this year, but I’m seeing posts [about SoupFest] in Instagram from people I haven’t talked to in three or four years who are living out in Las Vegas, and I think that’s a testament to how cool Nick was, and how he brought that sense of community and made you feel like his best friend, regardless of how close you were to him.”

At times, the growing scope of the event has threatened to overwhelm the organizers, and Harris said a new in-joke has become that the three pillars on which SoupFest was founded  soup, community and music  should be expanded to include a fourth: anxiety.

“There are times it’s like, ‘This is just soup; let’s everybody calm down,’” said Harris, who pointed to difficulties in working with booking agents for national acts as one major learning curve. “But on the other side of the coin, we’re trying our best to honor our buddy, and I think we’re doing a pretty damn good job of it. … We’re gaining notoriety every day, and it’s only going to get bigger and better.”