By Max Hrenda | Johnson City Press
Though nighttime temperatures continue to drop as winter draws nearer, organizers of a semi-regular Johnson City event were hoping one particular item could help attendees bear the chilly air — chili.
On Friday evening at around 6, the Friends of Olde Downtown offered attendees a chance to warm up during November’s First Friday celebration by hosting a chili cook-off, which featured an array of chilis prepared by more than a dozen downtown eateries.
“We were thinking it was probably going to be chilly in November,” said event organizer Eric Ruhm. “Chili just kind of went with it.”
Volunteers served up samples of 13 chilis in plastic ramekins to a line of participants near the breezeway between East Main Street and West State of Franklin Road. After a participant sampled each chili, they voted for their favorite, which was symbolized by a number rather than the restaurant’s name. Additionally, the November celebration also featured a fire-dance troupe — the Asheville, North Carolina-based Unifire Theatre — campfires in the Lady in the Fountain Plaza, near the intersection of South Roan and East Main streets, and live music.
Hosted by FOD — a nonprofit group aimed at showcasing businesses and increasing commerce in downtown Johnson City — First Friday offers attendees a chance to explore the various places and products downtown has to offer. According to Ruhm — an FOD member and co-owner of Energy Fitness, located downtown at 212 E. Main St. — the November First Friday also offered attendees a chance to give back to their community while having a good time.
“Building community is what, I think, is necessary for downtown to grow,” Ruhm said. “I think that giving back in some way is important, too. Second Harvest popped into our heads.”
Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee collects and distributes food items for needy families in the region’s eight counties. According to Ruhm, the chili cook-off was designed specifically to benefit the organization.
“We didn’t get to do anything for them in October, which is what we’ve done in the past,” Ruhm said. “I personally went around to all the restaurants and asked them if they’d be interested. The first five said yes, so I (thought), ‘OK, we’re going to do this.’ ”
A total of 13 downtown restaurants participated in the cook-off: The Main Street Pizza Company; Taste BUDZ for lunch; Numan’s Cafe & Sports Bar; Blue Moon Dinner Theatre; Freiberg’s German Restaurant; Buffalo Street Downtown Deli; The Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room; Tipton Street Pub; Label Restaurant; The Battery; Noli food truck; Holy Taco and Cantina; and Mid City Grill. Although there was no dollar amount required to sample the restaurants’ chili, anyone could participate for the admission price of one canned food item.
“Everything else, as far as donations are concerned, goes straight into the buckets and back into the pockets of Second Harvest,” he said.
Second Harvest’s community relations director Kathy Smith was also present for the event to both collect food and introduce her organization to members of the community. With regard to the cook-off, Smith said she and members of her organization were appreciative when members of the community offer them their support.
“We’re supported entirely by donations and grants from the communities that we serve,” Smith said. “Something like this — a grassroots effort to help feed the hungry — we just really love. We really like the concept and hope it continues to grow.”
Before the contest reached its end, a favorite began to emerge.
“I think I like number 8,” said participant Chris Oetjen. “I’m not a real hot chili lover. Number 8 had nice chunks of beef and good beans, and the sauce had spice, but not too much.”
“I like 8 so far,” said Johnson City resident Jake Drumm. “It’s more of a beef stew-type of chili. And then number 2 is good; it’s kind of like a chipotle, sweet potato thing.”
The winner of the contest, as well as a plaque and trophy to accompany the win, wasn’t available at press time.