Some stories don’t always turn out to be the sweeping epics we expect them to be.
Not all businesses have unique founder stories. Not all names have deeper meaning. In fact, naming our lentil soup happened in a surprisingly pedestrian way. In 2011, Women’s Bean Project had been receiving inquiries about a lentil soup mix. It was by far the most requested line addition, so the marketing and sales team decided to do something creative for R & D. They launched “The Soup Recipe Showdown,” a recipe contest calling for lentil soup recipes that could be translated into a dry mix. The winner received naming rights for the finished product. Despite humble expectations, the first submission received was from a former executive chef of the White House. “I thought, well that’s kind of upping the ante!” Tamra Ryan remembers with a wry smile. To be fair, the original submission rules specify that only professional chefs may apply.
Each submission was tested in the Firehouse #10 kitchen. Board directors, staff, and participants all participated in weeks of taste testing. The challenge ultimately came in scaling recipes for dry mix distribution. Ingredient availability, proportion, and price were the downfall of many submissions. Eventually, the list was narrowed down to five finalists, including the former White House chef and a few local Colorado chefs. The last submission Women’s Bean Project received was from Giada De Laurentiis.
This is where the history gets a bit blurry. By Giada De Laurentiis, I mean her publicist at the time. By the last submission received, I mean the last that the Bean Project took. At first glance, the team had found their winner. The simple Italian recipe called for readily available ingredients and spices. It included minimal preparation, ideal for a pantry dinner. Giada De Laurentiis was a well-known celebrity chef at the time, calling on her Italian heritage for Food Network shows like Everyday Italian. Although Giada has recently left the Food Network, her name still has a significant pull in the culinary world.
With no relative competition and a celebrity name to boot, Giada and her team were selected as winners of The Soup Showdown.
The marketing team was buzzing when they contacted Giada De Laurentiis’ team. They congratulated her on winning the competition, following it up with a care package of Women’s Bean Project products. They asked what she would like the soup to be named. The answer was, “Giada De Laurentiis Lentil Soup, of course.”
And that’s it. The soup was printed with her name and has remained so to this day. Rights to the winning chef’s name were established in the original contest guidelines, and no further communications occurred. When I blindly reached out for comment while researching for this series, there was no response.
The story was not what I thought it was going to be.
But as I explored the Bean Project archives, the story between the lines came to light. An enthusiastic letter was sent to Giada after she was selected as a finalist, cheering her on for a win with this picture:
It’s a unique treat to see our participants rally around a central cause. These women recreate community from scratch with the others around them, building bonds with fellow participants that can last for years. Having something bring them together is essential, whether it is as small as a home-cooked meal or as exciting as a celebrity chef.
Our “little contest,” as Marcia, one of our team members put it, was getting national recognition. Sales were up, and momentum was gaining into the new decade. Just that year, Ready, Set, Grow had a record high attendance of 700 people. The Bean Project was entering a new era in its history, and there was enthusiasm that bled into every aspect of the organization. It is visible in the numbers and in the successful sales of Lentil Soup Mix recipe by Giada De Laurentiis for the following 12 years. But more than anything, it is visible in the faces of these participants. It is visible in the pride with which Marcia speaks about the women in the program, often referring to them as “The Bean Queens.”
That enthusiasm stems from a deep belief in the Women’s Bean Project mission, that every woman has the power to change their lives through employment. It is very rare that a graduate goes into food manufacturing after graduation, but the job skills they learn and community they build during their time with us can stay with them for a lifetime. Perhaps the 2011 participants and production team said it best in the simple letter to Giada that accompanied their picture:
Greetings from Women’s Bean Project
We’re voting for you to win our LENTIL SOUP SHOWDOWN
Good luck from The Bean Queens