Kennewick woman to take over making her grandfather's famous soup

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldDecember 10, 2012 

Ask any of its countless fans around the Tri-Cities, and they'll tell you. It's simple but tasty. Filling. Delicious.

And the man who makes it? He's something special, too.

His name is Duane Pepiot, but he goes by Pep. And he's sold his 111/2 bean soup at the annual Holly Daze bazaar at Kennewick First United Methodist Church for 20 years.

He's the guy in the red chili pepper apron, handing out samples with a kind word and a warm grin.

There's always a line. Pep's soup -- sold in handmade packages as a dry mix -- is the most popular item at the bazaar, which is put on by the church's United Methodist Women group as a fundraiser.

And Pep, 82, sells it with aplomb. "He's such a character. He's always joking with people, always friendly. Everybody loves him," said Mary Gadeken, a longtime friend and group member. "I've never heard a bad word about him in my entire life. Everybody just loves him."

But Pep, a retired physical therapist who lives in Kennewick with his wife, Inie, is preparing to hand over the soup operation to one of his granddaughters. He's dealing with some health problems, including prostate cancer that's spread to his liver. He doesn't feel sick, but it's important to have a plan in place, he said on a recent morning at home.

The soup has been a major part of his life.

Some other church members used to make it for the bazaar, but it wasn't selling.

"(One of them) said, 'Pep, why don't you take over this bean project? You can sell Eskimos refrigerators. If you can do that, you can sell beans,' " the 82-year-old recalled. "So Inie and I worked with it. We had a year to get ready. And we worked with it, testing out recipes. I think we had eight or 10 super bowl recipes that we worked back and forth, trying to get the right spices."

They came up with a blend -- not too hot, not too mild. Perfect.

But don't press for details.

"It's a secret recipe," Inie said with a grin.

"Kentucky Fried Chicken and me," Pep piped in.

At first, the Pepiots made one or two hundred bags to sell.

Now, the soup is so popular they make 1,000 bags. Whatever doesn't sell at the bazaar goes to the church office, where regular customers know they can find it.

The production is a family affair, with kids, grandkids and now great grandkids forming an assembly line in the weeks before the bazaar. Katie Norman-Suitonu, the granddaughter who's picking up Pep's ladle, was a little girl when he started his soup making.

"I don't remember him not making the soup. I don't remember not being part of this project," she said.

It's become a special tradition. "We look forward to the call where it's time to do soup. Probably my favorite part is the process of looking down the table and seeing the generations," Norman-Suitonu said. "It's been kind of fun watching Grandpa come up with new tricks to better the process, with the barrels rolling the beans and the little gadgets he has to fill the spice packets."

Through the years, Pep and Inie have reached into their own pocketbooks to cover part or all of the supply costs. And the soup has brought in more than $70,000 -- money United Methodist Women has used to help charities and programs in the Tri-Cities and beyond.

The church in downtown Kennewick held a celebration for Pep and Inie a few weeks back, to honor the soup project. It coincided with their 60th wedding anniversary.

Pep said it was a thrill. Church leaders said it was a time to say thanks.

"Pep has used the soup to really reach out to the community," Pastor Jerry Poole told the Herald. "They are a very beloved family. They have worked hard for a long time to encourage the church's sense of community. They've made a significant impact on the church as well as the community, there's no doubt about that."

Gadeken, treasurer of the church's United Methodist Women group, called Pep "an institution. Or a saint. However you want to put it."

"They have just given so much," she said of the Pepiots. "Our bazaar wouldn't be anything without their contribution."

At home last week, Pep talked about what the soup has meant to him. Inie reminisced with him, along with Rene Norman, the oldest of their three daughters. After a while, Norman-Suitonu showed up with her girls.

There was a lot of laughter and a few tears -- but not from Pep. He smiled and told stories.

He said he'll stay involved with the soup project as long as he's able.

It's become more than he could have imagined.

"It's been a passion. It's been fun to do. I wouldn't want to do anything else," he said. "I've never ever not wanted to do it. It's just so much fun."

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