300 gallons of chili for the kids

SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-off predicts its biggest year yet as McKinley’s hit fundraiser

By Hutton Marshall | SDUN Editor

On a Friday evening every autumn, master Japanese potter Kouta Shimazaki attracts a crowd of friends, students and teachers to his ceramics studio and gallery, San Diego Ceramic Connection, for his yearly throw-a-thon. This group will make as many bowls as they can for six hours straight. This year they made 1,200.

Unfortunately, Shimazaki didn’t think that would be enough.

San Diego ska band Unsteady at last year’s SONO Fest and Chili Cook-Off. They play again this year at 3:30 on the North Park Stage. (Photo by Arlene Ibarra)

San Diego ska band Unsteady at last year’s SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-Off. They play again this year at 3:30 p.m. on the North Park Stage. (Photo by Arlene Ibarra)

They’re making bowls to sell for the SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-Off, an annual fundraiser for McKinley Elementary School that takes place Dec. 1st. The bowls are sold for $20 each and act as the ticket to try five different chilis made by North and South Park restaurants. All proceeds go to the McKinley Foundation. Last year, Shimazaki made 1,515. They were all gone in under two hours.

Clearly, a measly 1,200 bowls wouldn’t suffice for this year’s fest, which he expected to far exceed all others in terms of raw numbers and chili consumption. He decided to take drastic measures.

“We had to have an emergency second throw-a-thon,” Shimazaki said. “This is the first in history that we had to have two throw-a-thons.”

The second, emergency throw-a-thon brought Shimazaki’s bowl count up to 1,700. He still expects to sell out, but it puts him at a comfortable level.

This year’s chili fest invites 30 restaurants from the area to bring 10 gallons of the best chili they can muster, which will then be judged by a panel of San Diego celebrities such as Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, Congressmember Susan Davis and representatives from San Diego breweries. For amateur chili enthusiasts, there’s also the community chili competition, where 30 to 50 community members will show up with a crockpot of their own concoction. These will also be available to the stomachs of the public.

If chili-tasting for the cause isn’t your idea of a good time, a bountiful beer garden full of donated local brews and wine will be on hand. The festival is located in T-32—that’s the nickname for the tight-knit group of businesses at the intersection of Thorn Street and 32nd Avenue and most of those businesses will be donating a quarter of their sales to McKinley as well.

If chili and fine beverages still aren’t enticing enough, the music lineup should be. The two-stage affair will feature Gregory Page along with many local favorites, such as The Nards, The Creepy Creeps, and El Monte Slim running throughout the day.

Last year’s installment attracted an estimated 10,000 people, which is a startling number considering this is a neighborhood school fundraiser. It serves as a testament of its necessity and the widespread enthusiasm surrounding it.

The chili cook-off was started as a casual get-together at year’s end at Shimazaki’s SDCC, and stayed as simply an opportunity for friendly culinary competition rather than school fundraising for a number of years.

Then, about eight years ago, Shimazaki’s son began kindergarten down the street at McKinley Elementary School. To a father involved in the arts, the lack of funding the school received for art programs was worrying.

“I realized when he started going there that there was no arts in the school … and I just didn’t want that to be the case,” he said.

So Shimazaki started an after-school ceramics program  for his son’s kindergarten class.

“Then word got out in the school, so people would approach me saying ‘I heard you’re doing that with Ms. Applebee’s class and do you think we could do that too?’” Shimazaki recalled. “So it got to be bigger and bigger, and then sure enough, in six months the whole school wanted to do it.”

He and his studio were now volunteering a large amount of materials and time to this now-sizable program, and Shimazaki realized he needed a bit of help. After approving his idea to begin fundraising with Principal Julie Ashton-Gray, he began incorporating his handcrafted bowls into the cook-off, donating the proceeds to his after-school program.

“It started out with just 40 bowls, then 100 bowls, then 200 bowls, then now sure enough last year we made an incredible number, 1,515 bowls in 6 hours,” Shimazaki said.

About 5 years ago, after the first SoNo Fest—a craft and jewelry sale to fundraise for McKinley—the two events were combined to form the expansive event seen today. Now, the huge amount of funding the event generates—$34,000 last year—goes toward a lot more than the ceramics program.

“It’s definitely grown far beyond a school fundraiser,” Event Chair Jen Byard said. “It’s now much more of a community event that raises money for a school.”

Byard has three boys attending McKinley. Having worked her way up the ladder of parental involvement to SoNo Fest’s top organizational spot, she realizes how vital events like these are in counterbalancing public school underfunding.

McKinley recently became a certified International Baccalaureate school, which lets them offer this advanced educational program, but that comes along with some additional funding needs, like more language and arts staffing.

“We got our designation three years ago,” Byard said. “It’s a long and arduous process, but once you get it, it’s really great for kids. They get a lot from going to an IB school.”

The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1, but both Shimazaki and Byard stressed that if you plan on trying the restaurant chili, you’ll need to get there early. Shimazaki sold all his bowls by 1 p.m. last year, and Byard expects all the restaurant chili to be gone by 1:30.

Shimazaki also recommends showing up for the presale event on Friday, Oct. 29 at SDCC, where you can have first pick of the finer crafted bowls. Beer, a larger selection of ceramics and art pieces, and possibly live music will also be present. You can also stop by the studio the next day from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. to guarantee yourself a bowl.

For more information, go to, follow @sonoparkfest on Twitter and Instagram @sonofest, or like their page age


One Comments

  1. Thom Brown says:

    Rumor has it 80’s rock star legend Billy Idol will be there again!

Leave a Comment