Sunday, July 06, 2008

Future of BBQ Contests

I don't have a Magic 8 ball, or even a crystal ball, but I think I can safely predict that competition barbecue as we've known it for the past 10-years or so, is in the process of changing significantly. Until barbecue contest organizers and sanctioning bodies find a reliable way to incorporate public participation into the events, I think the sport is on shaky ground. We don't have to agree with it and we don't have to like it, but I think the popularity of the Championship Barbecue Series on Versus has offered a glimpse into the future of cooking barbecue for sport.

I can't imagine that my experiences are different than anyone elses, so I'll discuss my own competition efforts as an example to explain why I feel this way.

In 2003 through mid-2005 combined, Linda and I spent nearly $10,000 of own money on barbecue contests, equipment, and part-time business investments. During that time we earned approximately $3,000 in prize money to offset those expenses.

For a typical FBA or KCBS sanctioned ompetition that we attended during 2003 through 2005 our expenses included the following:

--Entry fees $300
--Meats $120
--Supplies $30
--Gasoline $50
--Food $20

Our "pay back" or "earnings" during that time included several category wins in chicken and brisket, which typically represented $300 -$400. For events where we won a category or placed in the top three in a couple of different categories, we were on a break even basis. At one event we placed top five in all four categories and won Reserve Grand Champion, but our total earnings were only $550.

It's now 2008 and our expenses for gasoline and meats have risen significantly. Gasoline prices have doubled and meat prices have risen by at least 50%. So even with a category win, we're in the hole before we even start.

What choices do contest cooks have to combat rising expenses? For most contest cooks, starting a bbq business aimed at capitalizing on bbq contest participation seems viable. The basic choices are as follows:

--Start selling bbq rub
--Start selling bbq sauce
--Start a bbq vending / concession business
--Start a bbq catering service
--Start a barbecue website
--Pursue corporate sponsorship

On the surface, each of those ideas sounded promising to us. They certainly sound simple enough. How hard could it be?

We found a co-packer and started selling our bbq spice rubs at contests and to family and friends. If you're thinking of taking a similar approach, plan to spend at least $850 in start-up expenses, add another $300 or $400 if you want professionally printed labels for your bottles. To earn back the start-up costs, plan on selling at least 1,000 bottles of rub in 10 oz. bottles (600 if you decide to start with a larger 13 oz. bottle).

It would be much easier to sell bbq sauce in these volumes, but the start-up expenses are about 400% greater, so increase the sales to 4,000 small bottles (or 2,400 big bottles). After a little research with the health department and state regulators, we crossed bbq vending, concessions, and catering off the list quickly. The start-up expenses to comply with the legal requirements are nearly $20,000, plus rent on a commissary facility to store supplies and prepare foods.

I started two barbecue websites that do generate a small amount of revenue, but not nearly enough to support the cost of contests. If you have technical expertise, this might a viable alternative for you, but based on my "seat of the pants" knowledge level, it's not been the answer to our expense issues.

Which leaves one more option -- corporate sponsorship. I haven't put any efforts into obtaining a corporate sponsor for our bbq team and as difficult as it sounds, it is probably the best option on this list. And that brings us back to the lack of spectator involvement in the events. Without large numbers of spectators at bbq contests (I'm talking thousands), the corporate sponsorship is going to be hard to come by.

Versus found a way to package bbq contests into short snippets of time to hold an audience. Holding an audience generates corporate sponsorship, which in turn makes bbq contests more profitable. But, it's not practical for fifty or sixty teams to compete on a television program like the Barbecue Championship Series. That program succeeded more because if focused on a few teams. So where does that leave the other 3,955 + teams that compete in bbq contests?

If barbecue contests are to survive in their present form, it's up to the contest organizers and sanctioning bodies to find new and exciting ways to involve the public more directly into the tradional bbq contests.

Start a Catering Business


Chris said...

You raise some very interesting points and made me think of a few questions.

I wonder if anyone has done any statistical analysis of the average tenure of competition participants. In other words, is the sport retaining existing participants AND bringing in new ones (true growth). Or is it more of a revolving door in which people jump in, try it for a few years, and then get disillusioned with how it really works and quit. I guess that would be difficult to do since you'd have to get FBA, KCBS, MBN, et al to share their data.

Did the Versus series get picked up for 2008? Everything on their site that I found seems like it might be history.

Rev. Smoke said...

I think one big problem is the time scales involved in doing good bbq versus audience attention span. I seem to remember the contestants on the Versus show doing a lot of complaining that they did not have a enough time for some of the meats they had to cook. There is no way they could have been turning in world-class bbq in most of the time frames they were given. It would have been far more accurate to frame it as a grilling comp as opposed to bbq. I thought at the time the producers of that show seemed to not know much about bbq. Some evidence of this was the host they hired - while competent at hosting a television show - he is really a surfing/skate boarding tv show host with no food knowledge whatsoever. I also found the judging to be based on a startling lack of standards - not that different from some KCBS comps.

All that being said, you make a good point about the audience and the general public. I know at Lake Placid, NY they do something called "Buck-a-Rib" on Saturday where the public can purchase ribs and then vote for a people's choice award. Of course most local health departments would have lots of issues with this idea, but it is headed in the right direction. I think they do something similar at Chili comps (but I'm not positive.)

The BBQ Guy said...


I haven't done a statistical analysis, but my seat of the pants methodology tells me that you might be onto something.

Most of the folks that I know have been competing between 5 and 6 years. Some competed with another team or teams prior to going out on their own.

I have noticed a lot of teams that no longer cook in contests. I think the teams that can earn some nice category wins and maybe a grand champion or two, if they're lucky, stay in the contest scene for longer periods.

The BBQ Guy said...


I am leaning more toward the problem with contests being that spectators that go to the event can't eat any bbq unless there are actually bbq vendors onsite.

It's difficult for the public to understand the point of going to a bbq event and they can't eat bbq.

The American Royal is the worst in this regard. You pay $10 to walk around the contest site and watch other people drink beer and party hearty.

It was a big dissapointment for my family and friends when they attended the event in 2005.

People catch onto this quickly and don't go back the next year. For the small town contests, this can kill an event in a few short years.

Rev. Smoke said...

I definitely agree with that issue - how many times an hour right before turn-in do you have to turn the public away? It is distracting to us and disheartening to the public. I do think it is up to the organizers to make it clearer to the public what the situation is - especially when we can't give our food out to the public.

It is hard to imagine how in a comp with a lot of teams that you could enforce public health codes unless you supply the meat and make sure every team is Health Dept. certified for the area. I have heard of some comps doing something similar to this, but it seems very challenging from a liability point of view.

Regardless,I think your theme is right on target - how can the public really get involved so that they really care about the competition and the results.

Mark Baker said...

BBQ Guy,
I agree with your article about the costs of competing. I've cut back in the FBA the past year. We cooked next to you in Arcadia a few years back. I am interested in your idea about the personal services BBQ chef. What was needed to start up that side of your business. I have been catering a few jobs the past 4 years but the commisary requirements and mobile catering are very expensive. Drop me an e-mail please to discuss this issue.
High on the Hog BBQ,Vero Beach, Fl

Ms. Bernie Day said...

Yep - they are a-changing...especially now that you can do a contest online in a reality show! Go to - nationwide cook-off starts on April 25, and runs thru the summer.