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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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Madison SOUP mixes business and pleasure
It's dinner, with a side of philanthropy
Wentler: Inspired by Soup grants nationwide.
Wentler: Inspired by Soup grants nationwide.
Credit:Michael Klinski

The phrase "Madison SOUP" might bring to mind something saucy based on cheese and beer, or, conversely, one of those extended common council meetings that drag on until 4 a.m. It is, however, our local branch of an international network of meal-based micro-granting initiatives. Uh, say again?

"I got the idea when I went to the Detroit Maker Faire in July," says Madison SOUP founder Heather Wentler. (Maker Faires are informal showcases for innovators that feature everything from science to art and fashion projects.) There Wentler, 26, a Madison substitute teacher, happened upon Detroit SOUP - a soup dinner that helps fund nascent projects, and one of a growing network of "Soups."

"Soup grants" fund small- to medium-sized creative projects through the proceeds from these community meals. According to the umbrella website,, there are currently 46 other Soups, from as close as Milwaukee to as far away as Kiev, Ukraine.

Wentler, inspired, came home and started Madison SOUP. She credits the Soup branch in Dubuque, Iowa, known as ArtGumbo, with helping her through the organizational hurdles.

"Most of the other Soups are based on funding art projects, helping artists get money to bring their pieces to the public," says Wentler. She wanted the Madison version to be "open to artists or startups or community projects, but beyond just the artist's realm."

Organizers make the meal. Diners pay for the meal and listen to would-be grantees pitch their projects. Diners then vote for the best project, and the winner gets the money as a micro-grant, minus the costs for the actual ingredients of the meal.

Madison's first Soup took place in September, with word-of-mouth-only publicity generating two potential projects and 15 diners for a meal of creamy potato soup. The contenders included someone working on a "Proto Freedom Box," or "kind of like a spin on social networking, but taking away the Big Brother aspect," explains Wentler. The eventual champ, 7cees, is a mobile creative studio built out of an old school bus, looking for funds to tour the country.

The next Soup dinner takes place Sunday, Nov. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Sector67, 2100 Winnebago St.; tickets are $10. The menu is cheddar and broccoli soup made by Wentler, with a fresh greens salad, salad-bar sides and whole-wheat dinner rolls.

Wentler wants to keep the number of presenters to five so voters aren't overwhelmed. While someday she'd like to see Soup nights have themes, so people don't feel like they're comparing very dissimilar projects, right now "it's pretty open." Dinners take place every two months, and presenters must fill out an application form found on the website, As far as diner-voters go, RSVPs are welcome, but so are people showing up at the door. Because of that policy, one of the most difficult tasks for Wentler has been figuring out how much food to make.

"I really like the community aspect of it," says Wentler, "bringing people together for a greater awareness of the great ideas there are here in Madison."

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