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Children's stories came alive at United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties' annual Chili Cook-Off

Prizes were handed out for the most unusual chili, hottest chili, best display, judges' choice and people's choice.

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Dave Lamb, left, and Michael Haak of Aagard hold up the Traveling Trophy after winning People's Choice at United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties 23rd annual Chili Cook- Off.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — Chili was back at the Broadway Ballroom for the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties' 23rd annual Chili Cook-Off on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

Over 360 community members came out to witness 24 local businesses and organizations go head to head to find out who had the best chili for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic halted most social gatherings over the last two years.

The theme for the event was children's stories. Many contestants were adorned in costumes representing their favorite children's stories with their chili table display following suit. Robyn Snyder along with staff from United Way handed out an award for best decorative table display.

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Gardonville employees adorned costumes to represent Clifford the Big Red Dog and took home the prize for judge's choice and spiciest chili. Back row from left, Katie Stokesbary, Jana Lee, and Kayla Bitzan. In front, Jenny Deschene.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Each chili entry was ranked by a panel of judges to decide the spiciest, most unique and all-around best. The judges included Mark Thoe from Alomere Health, Ronnie Bantau from Aagard, Dan Krippner from Cub Foods, Lisa Heathman from Broadway Ballroom, Kyle Athey from Geneva Capital, Todd Stensrud from Massman and Lisa De Krey representing United Way as the acting board president.

Guests from the community also had their say in who took home the trophy for people's choice.

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The winners of the day include Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association , Bell Bank , First Western Bank and Trust , and Aagard.

Members from Bell Bank dressed as characters from Charles Schulz's cartoon, "Peanuts." They took home the prize for the most unusual with their sweet and spicy chili made from mandarin oranges, pineapple, peaches, ground beef, Bush's Best Baked Beans, chili beans and Buffalo Wild Wings' mango habanero sauce. The recipe came from Tim Bush, an insurance advisor at Bell.

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Members of Bell Bank took home the prize for most unusual chili.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Bush said it was a team effort that delivered them the win. He had the recipe and the team did the cooking. He added that his recipe was selected after winning an in-office cook-off among the Bell Bank staff in preparation for United Way's Cook-Off.

Last year's people's choice winners, First Western Bank, dressed as characters from Dr. Suess' "Cat in the Hat." Although they didn't win an award for their chili this year, they took home the best display prize.

"It's truly an honor," said Anita Erickson from First Western. " We love it. We love coming to this event... It's a great way to get out into the community and bring everybody together... It takes a lot of people whether it's a small business or large, you know, it takes everybody."

Runner-ups were Gardonville in second for their Clifford the Big Red Dog display and Alexandria Community Education in third for their Hansel and Gretel display.

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First Western Bank took home the prize for best display for their "Cat in the Hat" rendition. From left, Karrie Bahr, Lacey Woida and Anita Erickson.

"We hope it continues to stay this way or grow," said Karrie Bahr from First Western. "It's great to support the community in the United Way."

Gardonville did take home two first-place wins for hottest and judge's choice.

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But perhaps the most anticipated award of the day was the people's choice, whose winner gets to take home the "Traveling Trophy," and it was nearly a three-way tie.

Geneva Capital received 40 votes, 3M received 42 votes, and while it was Gardonville that won over the judges, Aagard won over the people with 43 votes.

"It means a lot," said Michael Haak, the mastermind behind the people's choice chili.

Haak said the secret to his company's win was the process in which he cooked the chili — 15 hours in a smoker. He joked that he might have to shoot for second-best next year as he doesn't want to go through the long process again.

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Jana Lee, left, and Katie Stokesbary hold up their wooden spoons which read "hottest chili" and "judges' choice."
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

While the chili was definitely the highlight of the day, the purpose of the event is much greater.

Money collected for entry fees and admittance goes into the United Way's fund to support the community through grants provided to local non-profits and programs that support local individuals and families. All in all, over $9,000 was raised, well passing the amount raised in 2019.

Some of those programs the money will go to include Backpack Attack, which provides students with a bag of food through participating schools; Community Impact Coalition, which identifies community needs in areas of health education and finance; Hope Haven, which houses the homeless through partnered churches; and many other programs.

"I think it was wonderful. More than anything, the best part was just coming together again. The event has always been a tradition for us and we just absolutely love this event," said Jen Jabas, executive director of the local United Way.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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