Chili cook-off benefited displaced veterans through chow, competition and charity

NILES — Twelve hot pots full of secret combinations of spices, meat, tomatoes and some even beans were displayed across a line of tables at Riverfront Park South on Saturday afternoon. Some of the chilis were spicy, one had chicken and another contained shrimp. The competition was on, as a group of friends’ friendly bet had grown to include nine more chili makers united under a common cause: raising money for displaced veterans.

To participate, competitors had to contribute $50 and make a minimum of two quarts of chili. With 12 teams registered, $600 was already raised. Winners would get bragging rights, a trophy and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Each competitor had sample sized cups to provide attendees with enough to make an informed decision. A table of cornbread muffins, oyster crackers, cheese and sour cream were out for those wanting to dress up their samples.

According to organizer Bruce Reith, of South Bend, the event raised more than $1,300 for displaced veterans. The money raised will benefit the Robert Miller Veterans Center in South Bend.

The whole competition started with a nudge towards a cook-off between friends Bruce Reith, of Niles, Dennis Shaw, of Buchanan, and Lee Welche, of South Bend.

“When I cook, I post my food on Facebook,” Reith said. “Between friends, Dennis and his brother had gotten a hold of me to bring some of the chili over and to see who makes it best. I said ‘let’s make it a bigger deal.’”

The three decided to put together the cook-off event and host it outdoors in the fall. Masks and social distancing were recommended in the Facebook event, and the day of, people were in their own groups at the event.

In the end, Reith’s chili won. The votes depended on dollar donations from those sampling the chilis.

“Mine had dried, smoked sausage from Texas. It had Belgian chocolate, and it had Costa Rican coffee,” Reith said of his unique chili recipe.

Reith said he has had his recipe for 20 years. He grew up in San Marcos, Texas, which hosted “Chilympiad,” an annual chili cook-off that qualified its winner for the World Championship Chili Cookoff.

“I’ve been around chili for a while,” Reith said.

Other competitors involved were familiar with Reith and his friends’ other events, like their annual Bacon Party.

“Bruce came up with this,” said Jay Allison, of Dowagiac. “I’m here to support the veterans and the cause it goes for.”

Another competitor, Rob Lentz, of Granger, said the cause is what brought him on board as well.

“Don’t get us wrong, we love our chili, but it’s the underlying part that we are raising money for veterans,” Lentz said. “My chili, every time I make it, there is something new. I can’t tell you how I made the last chili, and if you ask me in two months, I won’t be able to tell you how I made this one.”

Reith and his friends organize other acts of charitable giving as well. Money raised from other initiatives have gone toward families in need during the holidays, and to teachers and schools.
The focus of the chili cookoff became clear after the friends organizing it became aware of what the Robert Miller Veterans Center does. With at least one of their close friends being a veteran themselves, Reith said it was an easy decision to choose who to benefit from this event.

With the chili cookoff, Reith said they could have worked to get more sponsors involved, but opted instead to “keep it simple.”

With the success of their first chili-cook off event, Reith, Shaw and Welche hope to make it annual tradition.

“The easier you do it, the more you can help people,” he said.

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