Hearth & Home

Judges sample the food at a competition sponsored by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS).

YOU Be the Judge!

By Lisa Readie Mayer

How tapping into the world of competition barbecue can help you grow your business, and have fun doing it.

Whether they’ve been inspired by the barbecue pros on television, the camaraderie among teams at a local competition, or a finger-lickin,’ smoke-kissed meal at one of the growing number of barbecue restaurants nationwide, consumers want to learn more about low-and-slow, traditional barbecuing. This group represents a significant potential business opportunity for specialty retailers.

However, to connect with them, you have to be able to talk the (barbecue) talk authoritatively, know the ins and outs of competition-style techniques, and carry the gear required to get it done.

In other words, you need street cred!

Steve Rogers, owner with his wife Leah, of the BBQ Equipment Store & Carry Out in Hampstead, Maryland, knows all about this first-hand. The military veteran-turned-retailer got his start as a barbecue caterer before selling his own branded barbecue sauces and rubs and, later, barbecue equipment, online. The couple opened a brick-and-mortar retail store in 2011, and in January of this year began selling prepared barbecue carry-out food.

Through it all, Rogers was a professional competitor on the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) circuit, entering events all over the East Coast. When the business expanded and there was little time to compete, Rogers turned his competition expertise into a vehicle to connect with current customers, attract new ones, and grow his business by promoting traditional barbecuing and hosting barbecue cook-offs, events and classes.

Mark Stoner, owner of Ashbusters Chimney Service near Nashville, is proof that this strategy works. It was his local specialty barbecue retailer who first got him hooked on competition barbecue.

“The store owner was hosting an amateur barbecue contest and he invited me to enter,” says Stoner. “At first, I said no. I didn’t know anything about competing, but I did it anyway.” After surprising himself with a first-place finish in ribs and second place in chicken, Stoner found himself bitten by the barbecue bug.

He went to two different competition barbecue cooking schools, got certified as a Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) judge, bought a brand new smoker, accessories and spice rubs (all purchased from the same specialty barbecue retailer who encouraged him to enter that first competition), and started entering professional-level barbecue contests.

Stoner has become such an avid and accomplished competitor, he’s even taught seminars on “How to Smoke Like a Pro” to standing-room-only audiences at the last two HPBExpos. “The room was full of hearth and barbecue retailers who wanted to learn how to use competition barbecue to draw customers to their stores,” he says.

Getting Educated

As is the case with Stoner and Rogers, developing a niche around low-and-slow, traditional-style barbecue can fuel retail sales no matter your location. But the experts say it takes more than just stocking the shelves with the right merchandise to succeed in this category; you need authentic passion and the right skills. Fortunately, if you are not well versed in barbecue techniques or culture, there are ways to get up to speed.

Getting certified as an official KCBS judge is a great introduction to competition-style barbecue, and a way for retailers to boost their barbecue acumen, according to KCBS executive director Carolyn Wells. The four-hour class includes classroom instruction on how to judge the four categories of competition barbecue meats – pulled pork, chicken, ribs and brisket – for taste, appearance and texture.

The session also includes a simulated judging experience where students taste and score barbecue that’s been prepared and presented as it would be in a competition. Classes are often held in conjunction with competitions (usually the night before), and tuition generally runs around $75, according to Wells. The KCBS website (www.kcbs.us) lists contact information for dozens of barbecue judging classes held around the country, categorized by date and location.

The KCBS has certified 35,000 judges since the organization was founded in 1985, according to Wells. “We are going into our third generation of judges now,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

For a deeper dive, consider taking a class in competition barbecue. The KCBS website lists barbecue cooking classes held by experienced pitmasters throughout the country who teach students to master chicken, pulled pork, ribs and brisket. They also cover seasonings, cuts of meat, equipment, and, sometimes even preparing a whole hog.

Depending on the class and instructor, tuition for the two- or three-day classes usually starts around $395, but sessions taught by high-profile, celebrity barbecuers such as Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon or Ed Maurin might run between $750 and $1,200.

YouTube videos, barbecue television shows such as BBQ Pitmasters; Man, Fire, Food; Barbecue University; Project Smoke; and BBQ Crawl, are also helpful to learn the lingo and techniques. Of course, there is no substitute for attending a few barbecue competitions to see the action in person. The KCBS sanctions more than 500 contests worldwide – and lists them all on their website – so it should be pretty easy to find some close by.

2007 Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Team of the Year member Tuffy Stone of Cool Smoke keeps an eye on his ribs during a competition.

How to Make Barbecue Work for You

More experienced retailers might want to try hosting their own competition for customers. Wells suggests starting off with a “Backyard Division” cook-off for amateur competitors. “Backyard” events typically last one day and focus on two meats – ribs and chicken – as opposed to KCBS-sanctioned, two-day-long “Masters Series” contests that cover all four meat categories.

Judges for non-sanctioned Backyard Division events can be local restaurant chefs, local media figures, or other local celebrities, or they can be recruited from a list of KCBS-certified judges posted on the organization’s website. “These amateur contests are less intimidating and less expensive for both the host and the competitors,” says Wells.

While participation in professional “food sports” events requires a substantial investment for teams – as much as $1,500 per event when entry fees, food costs, and travel expenses are tallied – amateur “backyard events” are low-key and low-risk in terms of financial outlay. “They are an easy way to get the average-level barbecuer involved,” says Stoner, “and a good way for retailers and customers to get their feet wet.”

Rogers runs two amateur barbecue contests a year. One, “Cars & Que,” cross-promotes with the annual car show held at the tire store across the street from Rogers’ business. The contest grew to about 20 teams last June, with each paying a $40 entrance fee that Rogers says is just enough to cover prizes.

He holds a second event, “Fall Fest,” every October as a fundraiser for the local fire department. Though Fall Fest is an amateur-level event, it takes place over two days with competitors vying for titles in four meat categories. Each of the 30 teams pays a $100 entry fee that covers prizes and a donation to the fire department.

“We went the amateur route for the sake of our regular customers who come in every week to buy supplies,” says Rogers. “They always say they would love to compete, but they can’t afford it. We wanted backyard enthusiasts to have the same fun experience as the pros.”

Another option, according to Wells, is to host a specialized grilling contest that focuses on a specific food, such as burgers, steaks or wings, or cooking over a specific fuel, such as gas or charcoal. Kids barbecue contests are also extremely popular, says Wells, and they help hook the next generation of barbecuers.

Other events, such as Big Green Egg Eggfests, revolve around a particular kind of grill. Though some Eggfests have a competitive aspect, most have more of a fun, festival-like atmosphere in which teams cook on EGGs and share the food with attendees, who in turn gain exposure to the kamado cooker.

Stoner advises retailers interested in hosting a competition or barbecue-related event to attend other nearby competitions and talk with the participating teams. “Tell them you’re going to run an event next year and would like to invite them,” he says. “A lot of teams like new competitions because there are usually fewer competitors and, therefore, a greater chance of winning.”

For those who do win, make sure there are prizes. Rogers awards nominal prize money (garnered from entry fees) and trophies to the top five finishers in each category. Stoner says prizes don’t have to be monetary – grills or smokers, accessories, or even cookbooks work well – but the trophies “are a really big deal,” he says. “The winning teams love to make stage calls. They brag about the trophies and will display them at their next event.”

To help offset event overhead costs, Stoner suggests retailers reach out to their manufacturer suppliers for equipment donations for prizes and giveaways, as well as personnel to help staff the event.

Does it Work?

According to Stoner, retailers who host contests or events often say those are their top sales days of the year. “They sell grills, accessories, sauces and rubs to attendees,” he says, “and competitors buy stuff, too. It’s a big sales day.” In multi-level marketing fashion, the events are also a successful recruiting tool for a new crop of consumers who want to try low-and-slow, traditional barbecuing, and purchase the equipment to do it.

Besides smoker grills, he says practitioners of low-and-slow barbecue buy smoking accessories, remote thermometers, fuel, cooking woods, and specialty rubs and sauces. “Whether they go on to compete or not, (barbecue enthusiasts) buy a lot of gear,” says Stoner.

There are other benefits for retailers who connect with the competition crowd. “Forming relationships with pitmasters and wannabe pitmasters is a great way to find instructors to teach cooking classes, conduct demos, and participate in or judge cook-offs at your store,” says Wells.

There are marketing benefits as well, thanks to opportunities for local TV and newspaper coverage, and social media exposure. According to Stoner, retailers might even consider hosting a fun “Customer Appreciation Night” or “VIP Preview Party” the night before the contest starts, providing music, demos and food exclusively for customers and other targeted audiences they would like to connect with, such as landscape architects, builders and designers.

“It’s hard to put a monetary value on doing these cook-off events, but they are definitely beneficial to our business on many levels,” says Rogers. “A lot of new customers will say they tried our samples at an event and came back to order our carry-out food. Or they’ll stop in after an event and say they want to learn to barbecue, so we’ll steer them to the right equipment or to our cooking classes.”

According to Rogers, there are equally important intangible benefits, too. “I’m a big believer in being involved in the community for the goodwill it creates,” he says.

“Barbecue is America’s cuisine,” says Wells, “and barbecue ‘food sports’ are an excellent way to celebrate and promote barbecue as a fun and tasty outdoor lifestyle. Once people get the bug and make it a hobby, they are a very passionate bunch. They love talking about barbecue as much as they love cooking barbecue. They make very good customers.”

“Not everyone wants to travel and compete, but there are a lot of guys who want to make traditional low-and-slow barbecue at home,” says Stoner. “When they have a party, they want to cook amazing barbecue for friends and family. They want the bragging rights to puff out their chests and say, ‘I made that!’ Promoting barbecue is a way to make that happen and grow your business.”

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