Amy Dibari, Lucy Delgaudio, 8, and Kathryn Dibari, 8, browse through bowls donated by professional and amateur potters at Empty Bowls, St. Vincent de Paul's fundraiser to benefit the city's hungry and homeless.
Amy Dibari, Lucy Delgaudio, 8, and Kathryn Dibari, 8, browse through bowls donated by professional and amateur potters at Empty Bowls, St. Vincent de Paul's fundraiser to benefit the city's hungry and homeless. (Colby Ware, Baltimore Sun)

Richard Bell hardly had time to look up during the first hour of ladling rich cream of crab soup into bowl after bowl at a fundraiser to benefit Baltimore residents struggling with homelessness, hunger and poverty.

In that time, the general manager of Squire's Restaurant spooned out about half the 30 gallons of soup his restaurant donated to St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore's biggest fundraiser of the year. The nonprofit's event, "Empty Bowls," drew 2,000 guests for lunch and dinner seatings Saturday at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

"We run out every year," Bell said between serving guests who'd purchased $20 tickets for a chance to taste soup from two dozen area restaurants and take home a handmade ceramic bowl.

Bell said the Dundalk restaurant has donated its signature soup the past three years, with Bell personally handing out soup. "It's just something I like to do. ... We try to help a little bit here and there."

For St. Vincent de Paul, which serves some 50,000 people a year at two shelters and a soup kitchen and through clothing donations, addiction counseling and career development programs, Empty Bowls is about more than raising money, its leaders say.

"It's about raising awareness," said John Schiavone, the nonprofit's president and CEO. "The people who attend today will continue to support us. It's the start of building relationships with people, who, when they hear St. Vincent de Paul, they'll know us."

The outreach comes at a time when one in four Baltimore residents lives in poverty, according to the group, and city leaders are in the midst of carrying out a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Some of those efforts sparked controversy earlier this month when the city cleared an encampment of tents occupied by the homeless on the side of the Jones Falls Expressway. The Sun reported residents of the site said they preferred the site to emergency shelters.

It's hard to say how many of St. Vincent's clients are homeless, but the group's two 75-bed shelters for women and children, one in Reisterstown and one in Sandtown-Winchester, are usually full and have waiting lists, said Teresa Eaton, a spokeswoman for the group. In response to the increased demand for shelter, the organization has started new transitional housing programs, offering temporary placement in hotels or apartments to young, homeless men as well as families that can't stay together in shelters.

The Empty Bowls fundraiser, now in its seventh year, is expected to bring in about $200,000 this year. It has grown from a lunchtime meal served to several hundred guests at Notre Dame Preparatory school into one with both a lunch and dinner seating, each for 1,000, at the state fairgrounds. The event relies not only on restaurant and corporate sponsors but on dozens of volunteers to serve soup and on donations of several thousand ceramic bowls from professional potters, individuals and groups such as schools and Scouts.

"It's the idea that it's a very simple soup-and-bread meal," Eaton said. "People like how mission-focused it is, and when they leave they have this bowl that will always remind them of somebody in need."

At Saturday's event, restaurant donors included Atwater's , Bill's Seafood, Cafe Troia, Mama's On the Half Shell, Miss Shirley's, Pazo, Linwoods, Gertrude's and others. Nearly 200 items were donated by area businesses for an auction, including one prize of a bottle of wine a month for a year and a case of beer a month for a years.

Mick Kipp, owner of Whiskey Island Pirate Shop, a caterer that served chunky Cajun tomato bisque Saturday, has volunteered as kitchen manager each year. He spent lunchtime Saturday refilling the large pots at each restaurant's stations, running back and forth to a food truck stationed outside with a 12-burner stove where the soup was heated.

A soup tasting event allows people "to enjoy something that people who are homeless need," Kipp said. "Homeless people want something that tastes good and fills their belly, and nothing does that better than soup."

Rob Peace, an assistant principal at Mount St. Joseph High School, has brought his family to the event each year for the past seven years.

"It continues to … bring people together for excellent food, but it reminds people of the need to serve people in need," Peace said. He said the event shows his children, ages, 6, 9 and 11, that "there are people who cant count on a meal. Hunger is a real problem."

Liz Peck, another guest, said she likes being able to support a charity while bringing her family together.

The Catonsville resident, who attended with her husband, a daughter, a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law, has bought as many as 10 tickets for family members in previous years. Her goal at Saturday's lunch was to try just a little of each soup.

"I could eat soup every day of the week," she said, carrying a bowl of jalapeno corn chowder from Nacho Mama's. "They have good choices. Some I have never tried."