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It's time to heat things up in Irwin

Several restaurants plan to warm up downtown Irwin next week with cups of chili and chicken wings during the Irwin Business & Professional Association's Chili Cook-Off & Wing Thing.

The annual event, which runs from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, started as a way to promote Irwin's downtown restaurants, but has grown to attract businesses throughout the Norwin region, according to chairman Gary Santimyer, owner of the Colonial Grille & Taproom.

"It started with the cook-off at the Colonial Grille the first year but grew into a larger event where people walked from place to place in Irwin to try chili and wings," Santimyer said. "It really took off and has become popular."

Organizers expect about 1,000 hungry visitors will visit Irwin to decide on which restaurant takes home the best chili and best wing trophies and bragging rights for the year.

Each restaurant provides guests with a complimentary cup of chili and, typically, charges 50 cents per chicken wing, Santimyer said.

During the last competition, Santimyer prepared eight gallons of chili and 1,700 chicken wings for the competition. Both were gone before the end of the competition.

"People were lined up out the door at each place," Santimyer said. "It was phenomenal."

Last year, Kevin Kemerer from the Cheesecake Caffe, took home the cook-off trophy, which is proudly displayed in the restaurant.

But don't ask him for his chili recipe.

"It's a recipe that me and my wife, Christy, made up for a Girl Scout campout," he said. "It's not even written down; we make it from memory."

Kemerer considers taking last year's prize an honor because guests vote for their favorite.

Organizers plan to continue awarding the top pot of chili to the cook who receives the most votes, but they changed the way guests cast their votes. They moved from paper ballots to a text messaging-based system, according to IBPA member Mike Pochan.

Over the last five years, it has taken organizers hours to collect votes from each restaurant and to tally the votes.

The text messaging voting system allows them to collect votes instantly, Pochan said.

"Collecting 700 votes and counting them each, individually, was time consuming," he said. "Most people have access to a cell phone with texting capabilities, so with this system, we'll be able to see how the votes are going as each one is cast."

About a dozen restaurants plan to participate in the competition, but Kemerer is confident his chili will take the top prize for a fifth year.

"I'm sticking to the same recipe," he said with a chuckle. "I'm hoping to win it again this year."

For more information on the IBPA's Chili Cook-Off & Wing Thing, visit www.chiliandwings.com .

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