David Ansel, aka the Soup Peddler, is standing on the back patio of his magnificently funky south Austin home, dressed only in shorts and a smile, his mop-top of curls pleasantly unruly. He unsheathes a machete, holds it high above his head (both for power and dramatic effect), and then whacks down hard, halving the acorn squash on the tray before him.
Next it's the pumpkin's turn. "Remember that scene in 'Apocalypse Now'?" he asks before swinging into action. And then, after a few whacks, another question: "This is going to work well, don't you think?"
The Soup Peddler, a character in a neighborhood known for producing some of this city's quirkiest characters, has catapulted from obscurity to local fame in the past year.
He's a riches-to-rags guy who quit his computer programming job to make homemade soup and deliver it by bicycle to his neighbors.
Today he is developing both a recipe and a presentation technique for a pumpkin soup he plans to serve at the upcoming Green Corn Project fundraiser, for which he is, to his enormous delight, listed as a local chef. The benefit will raise money for a group that helps Texans grow food in home gardens at low cost and without chemicals, and offers education about sustainable food growth.
Sustainable is a favorite word of Mr. Ansel's. In fact, the definition of it is at the very core of the man - his life, his philosophy, his business.
"A sustainable business generates a reasonable profit while continually reducing negative externalities like pollution, sub-standard wages, and traffic congestion, and increasing positive externalities such as healthy workers, community involvement, and ecological restoration," says Andrew Grigsby, of Commonwealth Sustainability Works, and a friend of Ansel's.
But if the rest of the world is becoming increasingly faceless, Ansel is going in the opposite direction, to put it mildly.
Each week during soup season (read: not summer) he makes several hundred quarts of soup, by hand, from fresh ingredients. Then he loads the containers onto his custom bicycle trailer and pedals around the neighborhood to deliver them.
Folks who aren't at home leave a cooler and ice and a check for him. Folks who are home pop out to say hello, share a story, and inquire about his latest adventures. He also maintains an amusing and informative website (www.souppeddler.com), which includes weekly updates, such as the history of his latest offering.
This community bonding leads to countless rewards beyond the financial. Ansel, a hippie Mister Rogers, has been so inspired by his customers, he's incorporated them into a book he's developing. The tome features accounts of the Soup Peddler as he winds his way through various adventures, from procuring a certain type of basil for a Thai soup to seeking wisdom from the proprietor of a local coffeehouse.
Renee Buck and her husband, Kevin, owners of the Lazy Oak B&B, are characters in the book, as is their inn.
"He's prompt and he's courteous and he's really cute," laughs Renee. "And I love the soup. We have Wednesday night soup night at our house. He delivers Tuesday - I get four quarts. Whatever guests we have and anybody we see that day we invite over for soup. We have 20 or more people. Great way for people to come together and do a little networking."
The inspiration for Ansel's business came from a trip he took with friends to Real de Catorce, Mexico. There, he watched a woman making and selling gorditas on the street. On the way home, he and his fellow travelers found themselves on a huge cloverleaf highway, each opting for a different fast-food restaurant at suppertime.
Comparing the experiences changed his life. Could something like this work in Austin? Soon after he returned home, he began his experiment.
Ansel has since grown his operation from 30 to 100 customers. Another 250 hopefuls are on his waiting list for the about-to-start third soup season.
He has gone from making soup under the table (so to speak) in his house the first few weeks to using borrowed commercial kitchens to signing a lease this month on his own business space, a 900-square-foot kitchen that will allow him to make many more customers happy.
With growth comes the risk of defeating his initial intent. If the Soup Peddler expands business too much, he could be- come one of the faceless food purveyors he was trying to counter when he chopped that first onion.
His story also inspired Lisa Kaselak, a filmmaker, to shoot a short documentary called "The Soup Peddler," which has been shown to delighted audiences at three festivals and made its local debut at the Austin Film Festival earlier this month.
Ms. Kaselak thinks she knows a secret ingredient to the Soup Peddler's success. "It's more than charming, it's inspiration when you have someone willing to look ridiculous to prove a point," she says. "If the Soup Peddler can deliver a couple hundred pounds of soup on his bicycle, I can get out of my car and on my bike for at least one day and ride to work."
Strolling through his neighborhood, Ansel reflects on the good fortune his little business has been reaping. "All I did was follow my bliss," he says. "I used to think that was [ridiculous]. But now I say, 'Follow your bliss.' " He pauses, and then adds, "but you have to sweat till you're bleeding, too."