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Austin Empty Bowl Project is still going strong after 16 years, $500,000 raised

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Every Sunday before Thanksgiving since 1997, food lovers and potters in Austin have joined forces for the Austin Empty Bowl Project, an annual fundraiser that now brings in more than $50,000 a year for local charities that help people who don’t have enough to eat.

Local potters donate handmade bowls and area chefs make the soups. On the day of the event, guests peruse the bowls to pick one they like and then fill it with one of the soups. When they are done eating the soup, they get to take home the bowl.

It’s a simple concept that started at a high school in Michigan in 1990, and through grass-roots efforts over the years, Empty Bowl fundraisers have spread to countries as far away as New Zealand and China.

Kit Adams, who owns Clayways Pottery Studio and Gallery on Burnet Road, had heard about the events in the mid-1990s and asked her fellow potters to contribute bowls for the first Austin event, which took place at her studio.

(The year after the Austin Empty Bowl Project debuted, the Dripping Springs chapter of Helping Hands started its own Empty Bowl fundraiser. Their event usually takes place in early November, and Austin restaurateur Emmett Fox, who lives near Dripping Springs, coordinates the soups.)

In recent years, Smithville, Bastrop, San Marcos, Seguin, Buda/Kyle and Round Rock have added similar events, and many of those organizers first called the Austin group to get advice on getting started, information that Kris Asthalter says she’s happy to share.

Asthalter, a longtime volunteer who is also one of the directors, says that the more Empty Bowl fundraisers, the more money that can be donated to organizations that serve people who aren’t sure where their next meals will come from. “The whole idea is to feed more people,” Asthalter says.

In 15 years, they’ve raised more than half a million dollars, and because the organizers are all volunteers and the expenses for equipment and venue rental are offset by sponsorships and donations, all the money that comes in on the day of the event goes directly to the nonprofits. In addition to the Capital Area Food Bank’s Kid’s Cafe, proceeds from this year’s Empty Bowl Project will go to Meals on Wheels and More’s Meals for Kids program.

Charles Mayes, the founder of Cafe Josie, says that in his 30 years as a chef, he’s been involved with more charity events than he can remember, but this one has always stood out.

“No one is on salary. There’s no expense account. The time, energy, personal finances and generosity that the volunteers at every level put into this make it one of the most heartfelt, genuine events,” he says. “This event takes me back to why I got into the food business in the first place.”

Along with donating a big batch of a fire-roasted artichoke tomato bisque that has become a staple of the event, Mayes often paints bowls. Almost every year, he has served a ladle full of his famous bisque into one of the bowls that he painted.

“Out of all those bowls, it’s a crazy coincidence,” he says, noting that he never leaves an indication that he painted the bowl. “It gives me some sense of what I’m supposed to be doing.”

As the event grew over the years, the Austin Empty Bowl Project changed venues, moving to the Mexican American Cultural Center and, as of last year, the Marchesa Hall & Theatre in Lincoln Village, but never the date, Asthalter says.

Hosting it the Sunday before Thanksgiving is organizers’ way of reminding people that not everyone can host a bountiful feast on the holiday or any other day of the year.

Even with Formula One falling the same weekend this year, Asthalter says they didn’t consider moving the event to another time. “We have absolutely no idea how Formula One is going to affect us,” she says. “But we attract a different crowd for the most part, so we’re not too worried.”

This year, they’ll have almost 4,000 bowls to choose from and soup from more than 30 area restaurants and chefs, including Wink, Magnolia Cafe, Hoover’s Cooking, New India, Corazon at Castle Hill, Fabi & Rosi, Eastside Cafe, El Mercado, the Soup Peddler, Whip In, Thai Fresh, Buenos Aires Cafe, Iron Cactus and Spicewood Tavern. (Co-director Hester Weigand has been in charge of the soups for many years.)

Upper Crust Bakery, Sweetish Hill and Whole Foods Market are donating bread and rolls this year, and local musicians including Woode Wood, Brennen Leigh and bands Four Pegs and Pug and the Ghost Peppers will perform.

Another component of the event is a silent auction with higher-end bowls from local artists, as well as bowls that have been signed by celebrities who have performed in Austin in the past year. This year, guests can bid on bowls that have been signed, or even decorated, by everyone from Leonard Cohen and Bill Cosby to Sheryl Crow and Kelly Clarkson.

(Potters, who are notorious procrastinators, according to Asthalter, a potter herself, says they often receive bowls up until the last minute. Some are still hot out of the kiln, “smoking the newspaper they are wrapped in,” she says.)

It’s good exposure for both members of the art community who might not know about new additions to the restaurant scene (up-and-comers Foreign & Domestic and Roll On Sushi Diner are among the participating restaurants this year) and for foodies who want to learn more about the local ceramics scene.

“A lot of people have a narrow view of what pottery is,” says Asthalter. “It’s such a varied art. There are so many interpretations of clay” and you’ll see many of them displayed on tables inside Marchesa Hall on Sunday.

One of the downsides of having such a popular event with so many bowls to choose from is that a line forms as early as 7 or 8 a.m. on Sunday morning.

However, for Mollie Barton, the line is part of the fun. Barton, who lives in Corpus Christi, has been coming to the event since its second year and almost every year, she is the first in line.

She meets up with friends and family who live in Austin, and they make a morning of it. “I may as well be here meeting people,” rather than just waiting in my hotel for the 11 a.m. start time, Barton said at last year’s event

With the hotel and gas, “I spend $200 to buy a $20 bowl,” and over the years, she’s saved every one of them.

The brightly colored, handmade bowls fill her “eclectic kitchen” in Corpus. “And I use every one of them.”

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