The first Saturday in March is the time set aside for the annual St. George Island Regional Charity Chili Cook-Off and Auction, and for the past 40 years, the event has grown into one of Franklin County’s most popular attractions, second in attendance only to the Florida Seafood Festival.
Many years traffic has been backed up on the bridge, as scores of people funnel into the heart of the island to revel in the creations of as many as 40 teams, each vying for a cash prize and a berth in the International Chili Society’s world championship. Plus the many thousands of dollars raised benefit the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department.
This Saturday, expect to see something quite a bit different than what the island has come to expect.
Unlike last year, when it was canceled entirely, there will be an official, ICS-sanctioned event at Lighthouse Park, in which familiar favorites such as Big Shots and Spice Boys will be on hand, vying for the $500 first prize, $300 second place and $200 third place moolah.
But drawing on a COVID-19-related change first implemented last year, expect to see a robust “chili crawl,” with 27 teams so far signed up to offer chili at 17 different locations throughout the island.
They won’t be competing for prize money, just for bragging rights as the People’s Choice, and each of the homes will be a party by itself, held in conjunction with the regional cookoff but not under the direct auspices of the non-profit chili cookoff organization, headed by Mason Bean, that has long run the show.
“The whole community can get involved, it’s a whole new breath of life in the thing,” said Grayson Shepard, vice-president of St. George Island Charity Cookoff Auction Inc.
Shepard, who oversees the competition aspect of the ICS cookoff, said he expects about two dozen teams competing, following the no-beans rules, in the center of the island.
“We haven’t kept a strict list,” he said. “We’re basically telling people to show up and we’ll have room for you.”
Popular favorites such as Dead Serious chili, out of Tampa, and Paul Nunn’s Nunn Better chili teams out of Fort Pierce, won’t be coming, in part due to soaring rental rates on the island.
“I’ve had people who would love to come but they can’t afford to stay on the island,” said Shepard. “Rental costs have gone through the roof.”
He said that while COVID-19 is far less of a factor than it was a year ago, “people are still staying away from large events.”
Along with the smaller cook-off contingent in the island’s center, the traditional lighthearted debauchery will not be present.
There won’t be live music or alcohol served at the cookoff, and scratched as well will be the provocative Mr. Hot Sauce and Miss Chili Pepper “pageant.” The live auction has gone online to the cookoff’s Facebook page, with bids taken from Wednesday, March 2 through Wednesday, March 9.
There won’t be an array of food offerings either, with the main bill of fare – other than $1 samples available at the competitors’ booths – being chili and hot dogs served up by the island’s firefighters in the center of the island. The crock pot chili competition, in which anything goes, has been blended into the crawl, where each homeowner is free to serve up whatever food and beverage they wish.
The 5K Red Pepper Run will still be held, with the gun going off early Saturday morning, and the golf tournament will still be held Thursday morning at St. James Bay Golf Club.
“We’re in a transitional period,” said Shepard. “We noticed turnout was decreasing over the past few years. The numbers were going down down down, but the expenses were the same. The number of cooks were declining, and the ‘old school’ chili cookoff was in a state of decline
“This year it could be bigger than ever,” he said. “All the houses are going to be decorating their yards and setting up tents. More people are excited; people who normally weren’t involved are getting involved, and they’re bringing their friends. We’ve had a groundswell of interest and excitement
“This has the potential to become way bigger,” Shepard said. “It’s a new take on the old concept, and allows more people to participate. What I foresee is that the chili crawl continues to grow to become a big event, as it becomes more islandwide. The potential for growth is limitless.”