A Crock-Pot of Soup as Community Organizer

The origins and success of Martha Bayne’s Soup & Bread free community meal at the Hideout bar in Chicago.

| March/April 2013

  • A simple bowl of soup with veggies, beans, and bread.
    Perhaps what makes Soup & Bread meaningful to the hundreds of people who have shared soup from our Crock-Pots is, in fact, its capacity to encompass a plurality of ideas and expectations.
    Photo By Phil and Pam Gradwell

  • A simple bowl of soup with veggies, beans, and bread.

I’d been hanging around the Hideout, a small bar in Chicago on an aging industrial strip, for more than a decade when I made the leap from patron to bartender in 2008. At that point, work in journalism had become hard to find. A book project I’d started floundered and then stalled. Staring down the barrel of another Chicago winter at age 40 and trying to figure out what to do next, I was, I admit, a little freaked. And then I started to serve soup.

Soup & Bread, the free community meal I launched in January 2009, didn’t start out as anything terribly ambitious. I was tending bar Wednesday afternoons and, frankly, it was a dead time. We don’t have a lot of happy-hour traffic. Things at the Hideout—a music club—don’t really get going until after dark.

Free food seemed like a way of bringing people into the bar that would benefit both its bottom line and my own. The recession was hitting hard. More and more of my friends were losing their jobs. At times, it seemed like the whole city could just use a nice bowl of soup.

I asked a few friends from the food world if they would contribute a pot of soup to the cause and started to spread the word: free soup and bread, for all ages. Donations taken—one dollar, or five, or 20—for the local food bank. The first night, just after New Year’s, about 30 people turned up to sip soup from secondhand bowls. The next week saw twice that number; by March, we were a hit.

By now Soup & Bread is a wintertime tradition. We serve soup weekly from January through April. We’ve dished up thousands of bowls of soup and raised more than $30,000 for a wide range of hunger relief organizations.

Falling into the Role of Community Organizer

Friends and I have staged Soup & Bread dinners across the country, from Brooklyn to Seattle, and others have taken the ladle and run with it, launching their own events in Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere. Four-star chefs have donated pots of soup, as have local farmers and food activists, musicians and artists. The rules are simple: Bring two or three gallons of any kind of soup to the bar, then stay and serve it until it’s gone. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to hew to any local, organic ideal. We serve it with day-old bread donated by a local bakery and the occasional pie or cookies delivered by motivated friends.

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