February 25, 2013
Chili spices up downtown
Chill-A-Bration brought people to Main Street Saturday, as famished groups came into local eateries throughout the afternoon.
The yearly event challenges local businesses to compete in making chili, which can be sampled by participants who buy a $10 mug filled with tickets, allowing them to tour the entrants and vote for the best.
The winner takes home the title of “Cortland Area’s Best Chili,” as well as a Stanley Cup-style copper pot and ladle inscribed with the names of Chill-A-Bration’s past winners.
Mugs were sold at Jodie’s Hallmark, the Bling Store, the Cortland Beer Co. and at the Cortland Downtown Partnership’s headquarters.
The event brings an infusion of traffic to a normally slow February afternoon for most shops. There were 25 participating businesses where locals could bring their Chill-A-Bration passports to be signed. Five signatures enabled the passport to be turned in for the chance to win a $200 shopping spree on Main Street or a $130 value package prize that included roller derby season passes for 2013 to the Crown City Rollerz.
The Blue Frog Café in the Marketplace Mall had a container full of tickets to sample its red chicken chili.
The chili is a staple at Karina Murphy’s café, and she said she had been getting good feedback on it throughout the day.
Sautéing the onions in red wine helped give it a distinct flavor, she said. Murphy’s store was rife with customers, and she said it had been so throughout the afternoon.
“Everyone’s coming out of the cracks,” said Murphy, adding that she had seen a good mix of student-age customers and older adults. When asked if it was busier than usual, she responded, “Heck, yeah. I’ve actually been debating about closing at 3 p.m. on Saturdays.”
Hairy Tony’s on Main Street had a packed bar area and a steady stream of mug-holders coming to sample its pot of chili.
Owner Tony Caruso stood at the entrance spooning portions of the mixture, which he called a basic chili recipe.
Caruso said he had been on board with Chill-A-Bration, now in its sixth year, right from the start, and thinks moving it indoors rather than holding it at the Courthouse Park, where it was held two years ago, was a good move.
“It’s a better way to take a break rather than stand outside in the mud and snow. And it gives people a chance to be in a store or restaurant they haven’t been in before,” said Caruso.
There had easily been over a dozen visitors who had never been to his pub before and told him they would return, he said.
“There’s been a good flow of people; it’s been nice.”
Indulge, a café-bakery, was in it to win it with the shop’s smoky chipotle chili, a rich blend of “beef, tomatoes, salt, onions and deliciousness,” said employee Casey Morgan.
“It’s been really fun. People have said their favorite part is the kick at the end. They’ve been saying it should be a regular item on the menu,” said Morgan, who cheerily described herself as a “chili enthusiast.”
The concoction was a mixture of several recipes, said Lisa Crupe, owner and head chef at Indulge. She said she often experiments, taking different recipes and applying her own signature style and technique. She had started preparing the chili on Thursday.
“I like food,” she said simply.
Nathan Leonard and several of his friends sat in the café, planning out where to head next on the tour. He said though he had been born and raised in Cortland, this was his first Chill-A-Bration experience. He said he had especially enjoyed the red chicken chili at the Blue Frog and the “Denny’s Mountain View” chili at Woodman’s Pub.
“I haven’t been disappointed yet,” said Leonard.
His friends were especially impressed with the half-size calzones Zonies was offering ticket holders. Shift leader Katie Smith said the Buffalo chicken bacon ranch and the Oreo cheesecake calzones had been the heavy favorites among customers.
“It’s been fairly steady,” Smith said. “They’ve been coming in waves.”
Margaret Gucwa-Natale and Pat Natale, who run the Frosted bakery on Main Street, were participating in their third Chill-A-Bration. They were serving a blend of custard, chocolate, whipped cream and cookies as a sort of dessert chili. Gucwa-Natale said she especially enjoyed seeing a greater showing of college students this year.
“It’s excellent to see them taking part in the community,” she said.
Pat Thompson, who was enjoying the chili, said she was just starting the tour and was already getting full.
“The servings are so big. I don’t know how I’ll make it to the end,” she said.
Macho Burger on the corner of Main and Port Watson streets is the city’s newest eatery. For Chill-A-Bration, it served up sample quarters of their hamburgers. There was nary an empty booth in the place, as three employees worked to keep up.
Adam Megivern, executive director of the Cortland Downtown Partnership, was visiting each location throughout the afternoon, snapping pictures and chatting up Chill-A-Bration guests.
“It’s a great way for people to get past the facade and meet the owners of these shops and restaurants,” Megivern said.
The Cortland Downtown Partnership said it sold all 500 Chill-A-Bration mugs. There were between 300 and 400 participants last year.
The “Cortland Area’s Best Chili” award went this year to the Deli Downtown at 54 Main St. The $200 shopping spree was won by Andrew Moore, and the Crown City Rollerz package by Bob Henry.
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