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10th Annual Chowder Cook-Off Serves Up Opportunity For Small Business


Ithaca held its 10th annual Chowder Cook-Off Dec. 7 on the Commons.

The event helped to inaugurate the debut Winter Light Festival, a 10-day event spanning from Dec. 5 to Dec. 15.

Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said the goal of events like the Chowder Cook-Off is to bring visitors to Ithaca who may want to shop, dine or stay overnight.

“It increases the economy, so it’s an important thing,” Ferguson said.


A portion of the funding for the cook-off comes from the Tompkins County Tourism Program, and is particularly important during this time of year, Ferguson added. The Downtown Ithaca Alliance is a non-profit organization that serves to revitalize and promote activities in downtown Ithaca.

“This particular festival is designed to really try to add more foot traffic during a time when people are looking to shop,” Ferguson said. “So, trying to put shoppers and stores together: that’s one of the goals of this operation.”

Chowder stand outside Simeon’s American Bistro on the Ithaca Commons. Co-owner Dean Zervos said that the restaurant has been participating in the event since its inception. (Photo by Zachary Gregg/Ithaca Week)

Dean Zervos, co-owner of Simeon’s American Bistro, said events like this allow the Ithaca community to come together during the winter season.

“It never hurts when the Commons is full,” Zervos said. “Because Small Business Saturday sure was not a help, nobody was out.”

Ferguson said he expected the Chowder Cook-Off to attract 10,000 people, which is a smaller crowd than other events, making it more manageable.

“It’s something we tried because we wanted to find something that would be interesting and different,” he said. “I think you got to encourage people to come out in cold weather, but chowder really is a good way to do that. The fact that it’s been around for 10 years suggests that it’s a really good event that people have responded warmly to.”

Luna’s Street Food’s cajun seafoood chowder. Restaurants set up shop outside their storefronts, and each sample costed $1. (Photo by Zachary Gregg/Ithaca Week)

Along with the soups, vendors were also selling other items, from farm products to jewelry.

“Festivals mean a lot to the Commons,” said Alyssa de Villiers of Golden Grove Farm, who raises sheep and sells wool products. “They just bring so many people down for the businesses, for the small farms. I mean it just livens things.”

De Villiers, who formerly worked in retail on the Commons, said she told the organizers that she didn’t have a tent, and was then provided one free of charge. She also said the event organizers did not charge a tabling fee, which goes a long way to help smaller vendors.

“If you’re an established business, then you know, ‘OK, if I table, I’ll make this much money. So, I know I can pay $40 tabling fee, because I know I’ll make it back,’” de Villiers said. “But if you’re not, it’s a good way to dip your toe in the water.”

Henry Phelps of Steinhaus Farm, who makes maple syrup and wool jewelry, said events like the Chowder Cook-Off are beneficial for smaller farmers who are just starting out, especially when a tabling fee is not required.

“It gives us some experience, getting to talk to people and know what kind of products people want,” said Phelps. “But it’s also better for us in that we don’t really know if we were to pay the tabling fees, we don’t know whether it would be fiscally solvent. It may or not be profitable.”

The Winter Light Festival will conclude on Sunday, Dec. 15 with the last day of the Prismatica installation.

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