Chowdafest

Chowdafest

Being a good citizen was ingrained at a very young age in Jim Keenan ’83.

“My parents taught all my siblings and me about giving back to the community, and Fairfield University reinforced that,” said Keenan, who dedicates much time and effort to helping people in need.

One of his main undertakings is the immensely popular Chowdafest, an annual food competition held on the shoreline near Fairfield. The event partners with Food Rescue U.S. in the fight against hunger, funding half a million meals last year alone. Keenan is executive director and founder of the event, which is staffed largely by volunteers.

Upon admission, Chowdafest-goers get a spoon, a ballot and pencil, and an unlimited sampling of soups which they then rate on a scale of 7.0 to 10.5. The restaurants with the best average ratings win their respective categories.

Keenan and his team annually invite over 40 restaurants and eateries to bring their best chowder or other seafood-related dishes to the outdoor food tasting festival. Last fall, as many as 15,000 people enjoyed the fresh air while sampling delicacies like sweet potato chowder, spicy Bermuda fish and crab chowder with rum, truffle mushroom bisque, chorizo and shrimp chowder, and zucchini blossom bisque. Of course, New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, and Manhattan and Rhode Island clam chowders are also on the tasting menu.

An admission fee of $20 is charged ($5 for children six to 12, under six years old: no charge). Consumers don’t open their wallets once they enter the event.

Restaurants pay a small “competition fee,” and also donate their food. One hundred percent of the net proceeds go to Food Rescue U.S.

My parents taught all my siblings and me about giving back to the community, and Fairfield University reinforced that.

Keenan has teamed up with Fairfield University athletes as part of their community service efforts. Last October, 157 Fairfield University student-athletes from the men’s lacrosse team, men’s and women’s cross-country teams, and men’s and women’s rowing teams volunteered at Chowdafest, earning the Connecticut Governor’s Award for 2018 Tourism Volunteer(s) of the Year for their participation.
“Our University volunteers play a big role in helping us pull things together,” Keenan said. “Their helpfulness and passion for Chowdafest really rubs off on the attendees, hence their acknowledgment by the governor earlier this year.”

After a business career that began on Madison Avenue, Keenan went out on his own and founded Game Plan Marketing, LLC, a sports marketing firm.

“Eventually, I specialized in experiential and cause-related marketing, helping companies succeed by helping charities in need,” Keenan said.

Keenan, a resident of Norwalk, explained that Chowdafest has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings 12 years ago.

Chowdafest now draws foodies from all over the country. While most are from Connecticut and Westchester, many are from greater New England, and some attendees even travel from the Midwest and West Coast.

“AAA has deemed us a ‘true destination event,’ and Yankee Magazine named us a top event in New England the past two years. The Food Network even taped us last year for an upcoming show.”

People always ask Keenan what his favorite part of Chowdafest is, and he usually answers in jest “when it’s over.” But kidding aside, he’s quick to add, “I really do get a lot of satisfaction. It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: helping resolve food insecurity is pretty special and makes a difference, which is the whole idea behind the event.”