On a snowy winter morning, local entrepreneurs Tara Pham, Zoë Scharf, and Karen Mandelbaum are discussing the handmade soup they serve each month at a community dinner called Sloup. As thick snowflakes drift by outside, they describe ladling steaming servings of soup into new Ikea bowls–they recently bought a set to replace the mismatched collection the original founders scavenged from Goodwill after starting it in 2010. Each month, Sloup raises money for local projects in community building and the arts. “You hear about all the great stuff happening in St. Louis, and how it’s on the rise … what makes it real is the small projects you can see on a day-to-day basis,” says Zoë. Since its founding, Sloup has distributed over $28,000 to more than 55 projects, most of them small-scale, grassroots ideas. “500 or 1000 dollars really gets them off the ground,” says Tara.
Attendees pay a $10 cover charge in exchange for a bowl of soup and a ballot to vote for their favorite idea. Local project organizers pitch their proposals to the audience, and the winner is awarded all of the money collected at the door. The food and drink is donated free of cost by local restaurants. Recent winners include Circus Harmony, a school located in the City Museum that teaches acrobatics, and Uke Go Girl!, which promotes empowerment for young girls by teaching them to play the ukulele. “We want to be people’s first grant ever,” says Karen. Local writer Henry Goldkamp applied to Sloup for his project “What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking,” in which he placed typewriters in the 79 neighborhoods of St. Louis in hopes that residents would write down their thoughts. “You guys probably won’t vote for me anyway,” he told the audience after taking the stage. He won, receiving several hundred dollars, and recently compiled some of the most memorable submissions into a book. “It just steamrolled, and that’s what we want to see,” Karen says.
Karen, Zoë, and Tara took over managing Sloup in 2012. Its original founders were graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), and had accepted jobs out of town. “It was definitely stressful. We were thrown into the fire,” Zoë says. Putting on their first Sloup events proved to be a process of trial and error. Karen remembers an early event they organized called SloupFest, which took place on the outskirts of LouFest in Forest Park. They set up in a spot without shade on a sweltering day in August, waiting to hand out bowls of gazpacho to festival-goers–only a few people stopped by. “We’ve come so far since then,” says Karen. All three women currently hold full-time jobs in addition to their work with Sloup: Karen works at a film company, Tara is co-founder and CEO of a tech startup called CTY, and Zoë serves as the creative director of a startup she co-founded called Greetabl. “This is, for us, completely a passion project,” Zoë says.
Restaurants that have recently donated soup include renowned local venues such as Olio, Blood & Sand, and Strange Donuts, who appreciate the opportunity to gain exposure with a twenty-something crowd. “We’re able to keep this format largely because of the generosity of St. Louis,” Tara says. The Vine, a Mediterranean restaurant on South Grand, once donated lentil soup and all three women subsisted on the leftovers for weeks afterwards. Each has her own explanation for Sloup’s dogged loyalty to one signature food.
“It’s easy to make in bulk,” says Tara.
“It’s an egalitarian food,” Karen agrees.
None of them are St. Louis natives. All three women came to the city from the West and East Coasts to attend WashU, where they met, and accepted jobs in St. Louis after graduation. Tara knew she wanted to stay in the city, but Zoë wasn’t quite as sure. Many of her college friends moved to cities like New York and San Francisco, and at first, she thought about joining them before deciding to plant roots here. “What was supposed to be a summer turned into a year, turned into two, and three, and now going on four with no definitive end date anymore … [St. Louis] kind of grabs onto you and you’re not aware of it,” she says. “I became distinctly aware, after graduating, how easy it is to love your life here in St. Louis, because of the resources and the accessibility. Everyone’s cheering for you.”
Karen first visited St. Louis for her freshman orientation at WashU. “My first impressions of St. Louis were awful,” she says. Her father took her to a steakhouse downtown for a celebratory dinner, and afterwards, they decided to go for a walk around the city. The streets were deserted. One of the only open buildings was a Macy’s department store, and they walked through the aisles killing time. “I was like, ‘Is this the place I’m going to be for 4 years?’” she says. As a student in the art school, however, she increasingly ventured off-campus during the next few years, and discovered new communities. “There are little pockets of activity, and you have to find them,” she says.
Recently, the three of them have been concentrating on outreach efforts to attract a more diverse audience to Sloup. “Part of what we want to do is offer this as a resource to everyone,” says Zoë. “We’re three Caucasian young women who graduated from WashU, and we want to reach people beyond that scope.” A community group from the Greater Ville, a neighborhood that doesn’t usually participate in Sloup events, recently submitted a proposal to create a children’s ceramics studio. They won all the attendance fees collected that night, but it still wasn’t enough to buy the supplies they needed to open the studio. However, a professor who happened to be in the audience that night offered to donate discarded equipment from his university’s studio. “There are so many examples of that–two people being in the right place at the right time, and Sloup being the catalyst that allows that type of interaction to happen,” says Karen.
Looking across the glass table at her, Zoë responds. “Our generation–millennials, recent grads, or the twenty-to-thirtysomethings–”
“Those young whippersnappers,” Karen interjects.
“–Those young whippersnappers really seem to care about the ability to actually participate in the community.”
Karen nods, looking out the window at Cherokee Street. “I, in my brief time here, have seen this area change so much, so intentionally,” she says, looking out the window at the rooftops of Cherokee Street, historic brick and stone buildings now populated by bakeries, bars, and vintage stores. “You can begin something here and have it stand a chance.”
To learn more about Sloup, visit here.
Sloup is also looking for new organizers to join the team. If you are interested, contact firstname.lastname@example.org