Chili cook-off brings businesses, community together

Desi Gillespie, Staff Reporter

Event goers were greeted by the music of local favorite Plato Jones as they walked down 23rd Avenue. Downtown restaurants seemingly poured into the street’s chili booths; DePalma’s, Avenue Pub and the Copper Top all had teams in the competition.

The intersection of 4th and 23rd was shut down this past Sunday for the first Downtown Chili Cook-Off. Businesses from around Tuscaloosa entered the competition, judged by attendees and UA Athletic Director Greg Byrne.

The streets were packed with people between the booths and the stage. Attendees entered in a near-constant stream, keeping all the teams busy. Young Tuscaloosa, a revitalized young professionals organization, volunteered at the event, staffing the ticket and voting tents.

Avenue Pub team member Charlie Lewis, a junior in the Air Force ROTC, has a special connection to the festival.

“My parents actually owned a barbecue sauce company back home,” Lewis said. “They sold chili starter kits that my mom made herself. I just grew up around it all the time. It holds some special memories for me.”

Cook-off organizers Craig Williams and Tripp Rogers sought to create a community event that increased foot traffic in the downtown area – Williams and Rogers own Avenue Pub and Innisfree Irish Pub, respectively.

“The Tuscaloosa Tourism Board has done so much for this area recently,” Williams said, “We just wanted to do our part in enriching this community. When I finished college, I thought it would be natural to turn around and leave, but I realized that this city had a lot of things going for it, and I could help build on that.”

Thirty-five restaurants participated in the competition, lining the streets of Temerson Square beginning at 2 p.m. Chili could be found in small sampling cups, allowing people to judge them as they progressed through the booths. Organizers set up a large voting tent to collect the opinions of the attendees throughout the event.

Molly Collimore, a junior majoring in social work, came to the cook-off with an out-of-town friend.

“I saw the advertising when we were looking for something to do,” Collimore said, “I feel like it connects the students, residents and businesses of Tuscaloosa into one community. An event for all ages, like, this really opens things up into a great festival.”

At the festival’s conclusion, the top three teams were announced, moving on to a blind taste test by UA Athletic director Greg Byrne. Chuck’s Fish was named the inaugural Downtown Chili Cook-Off Champion. Coppertop won the award for Best Tent and River was named most creative.

This chili cook-off is expected to be the first of many downtown events in the coming years.

“Our goal in the entertainment district is to build a greater vibe, a sense of community,” Williams said, “We’ve got a great block of neighbors who can shut down our streets and make an event like this happen.”