By Anders Zunich | November 14th, 2019
A thrilling chronicle of a time-honored Hawkins Companies’ tradition.
What do you think of when someone brings up workplace competitions? Before I worked at Hawkins Companies, I would think about identical people in identical suits competing to generate the most sales or a call center full of people trying to dial the most numbers in one day. Soup would certainly be the last thing on my mind. Despite those assumptions we might be prone to making about workplace competitions, a room filled to the brim with soup, my coworkers, and years of excited anticipation was where I found myself on November 7th of 2019. This was my first year that I had the pleasure of attending the Annual Hawkins Companies Soup Competition.
The first time someone (the head of my department, Mindy Gronbeck, reigning champion of the contest) mentioned the Soup Competition to me was on my first day. Yes, it’s that important, in fact that conversation is one of the few things that stuck with me clearly from my first day at Hawkins amid the flurry of introductions, instructions, and directions through our labyrinthine office. The contest is so important that (from what I’m told) the office almost fell apart after a fire damaged the space where the competition is held, cancelling it for that year. The fact that the Soup Competition was finally returning after the previous year’s disaster only fueled the flames of excitement surrounding the contest. Throughout the months leading up to the Competition, people would mention the competition increasingly often, with the sort of familiar reverence reserved for only the most special traditions.
When the all-company email came out announcing the 2019 Soup Competition, the office came alive in a flurry of everything from questions about the difference between a soup and a stew to memes referencing Larry Thomas’ infamous soup-based role in 90’s sitcom Seinfeld. I was raised watching almost exclusively Seinfeld (which is coincidentally the first thing I’ve mentioned to every therapist I’ve ever seen), so I quickly found myself laughing along with the company, and getting into the spirit of soup.
As November 7th drew nearer, excitement only continued to build surrounding the much-awaited contest. People talked about it in the halls, excitedly wondering what soups from past years would return, and what a refreshing new return to time-hallowed traditions would bring in the way of new and exciting soups. Most excited of all was Devin Throngard, the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Soup, Master of Ceremonies, breaker of chains, protector of the realm, and regent of the seven kingdoms” (if you haven’t watched Game of Thrones don’t bother trying to unpack that last bit). He’s also Hawkins’ IT Manager of 11 years and counting, and as you may have guessed, a fan of soup. Devin sees soup as “a comfort food meant to be enjoyed with others”, and definitely isn’t afraid to go above and beyond when it comes to organizing this competition, as well as organizing the downfall of Mindy, also known as the Soup Queen. In an advance interview before the competition, Devin told me “My money is on a newcomer. With all the new talent we have here at HCO, there’s bound to be one of you that can dethrone the Queen!”
This year Mindy was definitely feeling the pressure of her previous victories, not only from Devin but from everyone who entered the competition. It seemed like anyone who had a soup recipe wanted a shot at the prestigious victory this year. On the morning of the competition, I had a chance to catch up with Mindy, and she was definitely feeling the pressure. “I’ve tried a lot of good recipes today, I might be a little bit nervous” she told me with a cup of minestrone in her hand and confidence in her voice. And we certainly can’t blame her, when the prize was not only a selection of kitchen-related gifts, but the brand new and mysterious Golden Ladle. According to Devin (who has since taken up the name Soupmaster Flash) “Not much is known about the origins of the vaunted Golden Ladle Award. It was rumored to be the first ladle ever used to dish up soup to people in the before times. What we do know is that it was forged within a mountain somewhere in Asia by the great King Bezos then expertly crafted by Karen’s husband Brett, Kathy and Matt Grubb.”
As the day of the competition finally arrived, the office was alerted not by a droning announcement over the PA system, but by the sounds of The Final Countdown by Europe filling the office and bringing all of the excitement and anticipation leading up to the contest into the forefront of people’s minds. Soon enough our office kitchen was packed with people, with a nightclub-style line of people winding through that corner of the office. As people marched in one-by-one, they took samples of each soup, and moved into our conference room, where a loop of vignettes from Seinfeld (Season 7 Episode 6) “The Soup Nazi” helped get us in the mood for the dish of the day. The room was filled with people contemplatively tasting and discussing the intricacies of the various soup recipes submitted to the competition. Time came to vote, and we all exercised our civic-soup-duty in deciding who would take home the fabled Golden Ladle.
Imagine a ball thrown into the air. Or a soup spoon, whichever you feel is more pertinent. It moves upwards, gaining anticipation and momentum and energy. Then it stops. It hangs in its apex. The moments before the winner of the 2019 Soup Competition were the apex of the Hawkins workplace community. People from every different department, doing all kinds of jobs, carrying all kinds of personal and professional baggage, united in anticipation of finding out who made the best soup. April Brenisholtz, Hawkins’ HR Manager of 13 years, tells us that competitions like this are all about “challenging us to be better, bringing out our best selves, and encouraging us to improve through team-building… tradition gives us something to expect, and something to contrast with to see how new people change things up”. As a new initiate to this up-and-coming soup cult, it’s hard to deny the collaborative, cooperative, and nigh familial power exuding from the Hawkins team on the day of that contest. A far cry from cookie-cutter office competitions that dominate the public eye, Hawkins’ Annual Soup Competition has revolutionized workplace team-building activities into something dynamic, engaging, and honestly thrilling.
The crowd erupted into gasps, cheers, and claps as Mindy Gronbeck, the self-proclaimed Goddess of the Soup, was once again announced as the winner of the Soup Competition. The Golden Ladle will be signed by Mindy and rest in her office until next year, when it will be awarded to the winner of that year’s competition, so on and so forth, from now until the end of time. While Mindy’s Sausage Tortellini Soup took gold in Olympic soup-making, Tamra Frisch’s Six-Onion took silver (2nd), and Cathy Tomlinson’s Green Chile Chicken earned bronze (3rd), cementing them as Hawkins’ fan-favorite soups.
In the end, I can’t tell you whose soup I voted for without compromising my journalistic integrity. But I can tell you that if someone who works at Hawkins offers you some homemade soup, you should absolutely take them up on it. And if you have the chance to attend the 2020 Hawkins Companies Soup Competition, I hope to see you there!