Soup-centered event that started as a joke is now a sold-out charity benefit in honor of festival co-founder who recently died unexpectedly at age 30

A few years ago, Evan Harris got it in his head to tweet about soup. A lot. He found it funny, so the soup tweets kept coming, like an inside joke made public. Harris’ good friends Jake Sekas and Nick “Miklos” Battaglia took notice.

“Evan is going into restaurants and bars and always ordering soup, posting photos. One time he tweeted, ‘Had a dream about eating soup,’” Jake Sekas said, referring to a pinned tweet from December 2015. “In 2018, just after New Year's, I was living with our friend Nick Battaglia, and we were always looking for something to do to get out of our house. He was like, ‘You know, it'd be funny if we threw some sort of soup event for Evan, just to break up the monotony of the post-New Year's Eve lull.’ We took the idea and ran with it. So Nick replied to Evan's tweet about dreaming about soup and said, ‘Dream no more my friend.’”

Thus, SoupFest was born. Sekas and Battaglia hosted the first iteration in their tiny Harrison West duplex, with about 30 people partaking of 13 soups in a 15-foot-wide kitchen. Sekas made awards for the winning soups. “I cut a piece of wood, painted it white, used a label maker to put the award names on it, and then I spray painted a plastic spoon silver and glued it to the wood,” Sekas said.

The three friends loved everything about it, and they vowed to do the DIY event again the next year. “So we make this private Facebook group, and before we know it, we're probably at about triple the people that we had the previous year,” said Sekas, who realized they wouldn't be able to fit everyone, even at his new Clintonville home. “Nick and I are scrambling, trying to find a place to house us, and Evan's trying to keep growing it bigger and bigger. He’s calling bands, like, ‘Hey, if we get a venue, can you play?’”

The second SoupFest ended up in the clubhouse of a friend’s apartment complex. The band idea didn’t work out, but Harris got his act together earlier for the 2020 SoupFest, booking bands and a venue (initially the Big Room Bar) well in advance. All three tiers of tickets sold out when they went on sale the second weekend of November.

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“It was Saturday, Nov. 9, and we were all at Endeavor Brewing Company, sitting in the back room, not even watching soccer, just looking at our phones and watching the tickets fly and celebrating a thing that had started out as a joke,” Sekas said. “Then Nick died on Monday, Nov. 11.”

According to Sekas, Battaglia had planned to go on a date and then head to the Big Thief concert at the Athenaeum Theatre. “He never even made it to the date,” Sekas said. “He ingested some drugs that he did not know were laced with fentanyl. Unfortunately, it's a story that's all too common. … His mom has been very outspoken about how it happened, because she wants it to be a cautionary tale.

“I've been to hundreds of concerts with Nick,” Sekas continued, “and we've all done the same things over the years, but this is completely unexpected and just really eye-opening.”

While in the Cleveland area for the funeral, Sekas said he spoke to Battaglia’s parents about setting up a GoFundMe for funeral expenses, which they declined. “But they said, ‘You know, if you wanted to do a GoFundMe for SoupFest, it was Nick's passion project and something he was really excited about,’” Sekas said.

So they set up a GoFundMe for this year’s SoupFest, and the total money raised now tops $26,000, the majority of which has gone to the Columbus Foundation to establish a fund in Battaglia’s name. “That fund’s purpose is to address food scarcity and income inequality,” Sekas said. “Even before Nick died, we had teamed up with Columbus Neighborhood Services, which is a food pantry.”

With around 350 expected to attend, the SoupFest founders moved the event to a larger venue, Ace of Cups, with a full lineup of bands, including Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else, Wished Bone, Fluung, HYTWR, Junegrass and Ethan Samuel Brown, plus a reading by Hanif Abdurraqib, a favorite author of the co-founders, including Battaglia.

Local restaurants came on board, too. Ray Ray’s, Comune, Hai Poke, Brown Bag Deli and The Market Italian Village will all make soups, though theirs will be exempt from the competition portion of the fest. A variety of awards in different categories will go to winners of the 35-plus homemade soups on Saturday, Feb. 1.

“Maybe it's so successful because it had such an organic beginning. We were literally just making jokes about soup, and now we have a soup festival,” Sekas said. “It's like Nick is putting the pieces of the universe puzzle together to be in our favor.”