In it to win it
Barbecue competitions draw a crowd
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 9/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
A few years ago, Pete Kalshoven, the Napoleon Grills account executive for the Southeast U.S., decided to enter the National Bar-B-Que Derby at the National BBQ Festival in Waycross, Ga., figuring it would be good exposure for the company. He had no idea how fun and productive that trip would be.
The Derby had two separate competitions - the Invitational for the serious cookers who had won major competitions and the Open, in which anyone who paid the entry fee could compete.
"We figured we could hold our own in the Open," recalled Kalshoven. "I didn't realize the guys who spent all that money to drive there to compete in the Invitational stay for the second day and compete in the Open, too."
Kalshoven discovered something else.
"People like to come and watch other people cook," he said. "They may not get anything to eat, but there was still a huge crowd wandering around, all of whom paid admission to be there. It's a spectator sport. Who knew?"
Shane Draper, CEO of Draper's BBQ, did. He competes in 10 to 15 barbecue competitions a year to promote his barbecue products business. He said the competition circuit can be split into two categories. Major competitions, such as Memphis in May and the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, are festivals that draw thousands of people, most of whom are only casually interested in grilling and barbecuing.
Then there are the smaller competitions hosted by towns and counties that attract mostly locals and hard-core barbecue enthusiasts. Draper and his peers agreed that those smaller events are perfect for interacting with the people.
"The smaller events are truly community driven, and as such almost the whole town shows up to watch, learn, listen and taste," said Leslie Scott, barbecue competitor and owner of Ubon's BBQ Sauce and Ubon's restaurant in Mississippi.
Scott has cooked in more than 200 competitions. She said things have changed since 1992, the year she became the first woman to win the grand championship on the Memphis in May barbecue circuit.
"I would like to think that I blazed a trail for other women to compete and be successful in the competitive barbecue world," she said. "Now, there are many, many women in the barbecue world who compete. More and more women are getting involved each year and it's definitely exciting for me."
More people in general have flocked to competitions in the last few years, and Draper said their questions about equipment and cooking methods have become more and more sophisticated.
"Now they know what a brisket is and want to know how to cook it," he said. "More p eople are tossing around buzz phrases like, ‘hot and fast' and ‘low and slow.' They're mentioning equipment by brand."
Draper said he and his fellow cookers are doing everything they can to foster that passion for grilling and barbecuing.
"There's an unwritten rule that if you do these smaller events that are open to the public, you're there as ambassador to barbecue as a culture," said Draper. "We're talking to people right up until the tournament when we have to start focusing on the contest."
All the competitors, who range from restaurateurs to weekend warriors, seem to understand that, resulting in a lot of information sharing at these events. Put on a good show and drop a lot of knowledge, and people will want to know what tools you're using, which is exactly what happened to Kalshoven at the National BBQ Festival.
"The people walking through tasting the meat won't buy a $30,000 rotisserie smoker that most of the serious competitors use," he said. "But we had a lot of interest in our residential smoker. The question we heard most often was, ‘Where can I get one?'"
That makes competitions great venues for grill retailers, whether they compete, sponsor or even host. Draper said becoming sanctioned with a governing body such as the Kansas City Barbecue Society isn't hard.
"The sanctioning body has a set of rules and guidelines," he said. "They come and audit everything and make sure you're doing things by their criteria. You have to have a contest for one or two years before they sanction it."
But once they do, the event is added to the calendar on the Kansas City Barbecue Society website.
"That's how word spreads," Draper said. "Barbecue is really a large network of friends. Word spreads rapidly if a new event pops up."
And if a retailer decides to compete, he or she will see how readily their fellow competitors welcome them to the family.
"I've maintained friendships with a few of them we met in Georgia," said Kalshoven. "We hung out together and wandered around from place to place talking food and equipment."
|Peters being interviewed by local TV during the Rock’n Ribs BBQ Festival in Springfi eld, Mo. Barbecue competitions often draw local and regional media
coverage, which adds to the promotional value of the events.
|Ribs are almost a category unto themselves
at BBQ festivals and cook-offs.
|Emily Kalshoven mans Napoleon’s booth at a recent barbecue competition. Her
father, Pete, who reps the company in the Southeast, said who the events draw
depends on the size. Larger events draw more casual fans of cooking on grills,
while the smaller competitions usually attract a more devoted crowd.
|Barbecued meat is set out for judging at the Napoleon booth. Competition days
tend to be serious, but the rest of these weekend-long events tend to be laidback
Mike Peters, host of the Great American BBQ Tour, has competed in 25 competitions across the country. He said slow cooking allows for plenty of time for socializing among competitors.
"At a typical BBQ contest, teams load in on Friday, and throw meats on Friday night for the Saturday turn-in," he said. "Friday night is usually the party night where teams get together with friends and family members. Usually there is a potluck at one or two team sites where folks bring their dishes."
As fun as it was for him, Kalshoven said competing in smoker and barbecue competitions may not be for retailers, mostly because the cooking process takes so long. More time-effective ways to get involved, he said, could be sponsoring a barbecue team, sponsoring the event or taking part in grilling competitions that involve cooking meals on grills.
"A lot of people think they could be really good at Top Chef, even though they can't," he said. "But when you're in one of those cooking competitions, you take it seriously and still have a lot of fun. My daughter has cooked with me three times. It's been an enjoyable thing for the two of us to do together."
And in the process, Kalshoven has found a lot of people paying attention to the grills and smokers he uses.
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