After nearly10 years of being associated with professional barbecue, I finally attended my very first annual barbecue conference. The National Barbecue Association conference in Mobile, AL the last week in February was a very fun and informative event. If you’ve never attended a barbecue conference, I highly recommend you do so soon.
Although I belong to a number of barbecue organizations like most of us do, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a conference. This was usually due to my job, the distance, or prior family or community commitments. Since the NBBQA conference was only two and a half hours from my home in New Orleans, and after being repeatedly enticed by NBBQA friends in the past, I decided to go to the NBBQA meeting this year.
A third reason I decide to go was that I’d been in the process of starting-up my own barbecue products company. I’d been told by these same NBBQA friends who own their own businesses (restaurants) that I could learn a great
deal about the barbecue business and make some valuable contacts there. I still have a “non-barbecue”job, and
haven’t been able to make the jump to running my company 100% yet, so I thought their advice was sound. (Although, I hope I have the good fortune of being able to dedicate myself to my North-South
BBQ company someday; after it finally launches this summer.)
So, as soon as the registration e-mail came out I applied and made my hotel reservations. Over the next three months leading up to the conference, I was constantly thinking about the classes I’d signed up for, the tours I’d be taking, the business connections I’d make, and wondered what I’d learn. Also, I was curious about who I’d see there from my judging and cooking, and about the new barbecue friends I’d make.
When I arrived at the hotel the first person I ran into was my friend Dennis Sherman of Denny Mike’s barbecue products in York, ME. I’d taken a KCBS barbecue cooking class in Maine a few years ago with Paul Kirk and Dennis was our host. He also has served as a mentor to me regarding the process and cautions of starting-up a barbecue business ever since I began thinking about it three years ago. His guidance has been extremely invaluable in helping me plan and legally start-up my company.
After we finished talking, Dennis introduced me to Scott Shugers of Scott’s Pig Roast & More. He and his son Brandon run a great barbecue catering business in Marcellus, MI and were presenters at the conference. Like Mike, they are very sharing people. Scott immediately provided me a lot of key information about starting a barbecue business during our conversation; including emphatically definitively stressing that I need a co-packer to manufacture my products. This was a decision I’d been waffling back and forth with ever since I decided to start a business. Thus, the conference started off on a big, high note.
I was also pleased to make friends with James Hare of Cucamonga Cattle Co. barbecue products in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. He had begun his products business the year before, and he and I became quick friends. We actually attended many of the same classes together. I love trying new rubs and sauces, as many of you know, and James gave me some of his dry rub to sample the next time I cooked. (If I was the person who created products like Magic Dust or KC Masterpiece, I’d still try other rubs and sauces every chance I got!)
Another thing I love is trying new barbecue products. So, I took the opportunity to buy a Grill Grate directly from Brad Barrett. I was excited about this, as I’d always wanted one. The next weekend following the conference I cooked using James’ barbecue dry rub and my new Grill Grate…and Wow. I love the fact that it covers my whole 22.5”Weber grill rack and makes grilling a great deal more efficient without flare-ups. The Grate Tool included makes removing food so easy “a caveman could do it”. My next Grill Grate adventure is pizza! After cleaning the grill I called James and told him I really loved his dry rub, as he asked for feedback.
One of the biggest highlights of the conference for me, and there were many, was the barbecue restaurant tour and packing plant tour with The Shed’s Brooke Lewis. We toured the Beau Revage Casino kitchen and had a nice lunch in their barbecue restaurant, then visited 5 barbecue restaurants in the Mobile area, and ended the day with an awesome and fun dinner at the “original” rebuilt Shed in Ocean Springs, MS. Brooke was a great host for the tour!
The opening meeting was also a highlight, again with The Shed family taking center stage. Craig, Linda, and Brad Orrison and Brooke Lewis inspired, moved, and entertained us with a thorough presentation of the history and ‘Phoenix-like” rise of the original Shed following the tragic fire. Everyone there was touched emotionally, as they reinforced the idea that the most important thing in life is family!
I attended two classes on marketing, one with Amy Mills of The 17th Street Bar & Grill and one with Malcolm & Rachelle Reed of Killer Hogs. I was really looking forward to the classes, as good marketing and a wide audience can make a good company very successful. Both classes were highly educational, and I gained a lot of knowledge.
I’m not that internet savvy when it comes to Facebook, Twitter or the other social media sites, and now I have some tools to create a solid marketing campaign.
The best class of the conference, no disrespect to the other classes, was the Butcher class on Saturday morning and afternoon. It was expertly taught by a number of butchery professionals. Not only was the class well-presented and most of us in attendance learned a great deal, but we also got to sample some perfectly prepared meat samples!
As an added bonus, champion barbecue pitmaster Mark Lambert of Sweet Swine O’ Mine gave an outstanding sesson on competition whole hog preparation. Getting insights from him was a unique opportunity. I’m now inspired more than ever to cook and“butcher” a whole hog. This was something I’ve never felt confident enough to do prior to the Butcher class.
The grand finale of the class was the presentation of the two hogs cooked overnight by The Shed, Boar’s Night Out, and Black’s. It was a competition between Berkshire and Duroc premium brand hogs, more than just the cooking expertise of the teams. We all got the chance to sample meats from both amazing hogs. And, all I can say is that God Almighty himself was in the room during this “event”. Talk about ending a class with a bang (and a burp)!
Just as extraordinary was the sight the night before, outside the hotel’s front entrance, when all 4 cooking teams worked together to prepare and cook the hogs. Legends like
Mike Mills and Dave Anderson were also there. It was an historic moment that my
friends and I equated with the song “Rock & Roll Heaven…and we said, ”If
there is a barbecue heaven, they must have a hell of a cooking team” - like
we’re seeing tonight.
The Awards of Excellence ceremony was exciting to witness on Thursday night, as the award carries a lot of weight in the barbecue business world.
As my barbecue business friends prophesied, I made some valuable contacts. This included finding Derenda Carr with Ingredients Corporation of America (ICA)as a co-packer to manufacture my barbecue products. This was a big relief for me, as I’d finally made a decision to co-pack thanks to Scott and now had a vendor to work with.
The most significant impression I got from attending the NBBQA conference was that it was attended by great people! It was a mix of the experienced and less experienced, the successful business people and the want-a-bee business people (like me), and the famous, big name pitmasters and the not-famous pitmasters/cooks. But overall,
everyone got along and was willing to help each other. Where else in America does such a sense of unity exist
than in the barbecue community.
The opportunities to learn never end. Often the best way to learn is from each other because we all have special skills and experiences. This is what conferences lend themselves too. I learned far more by attending, than if I tried to gain the knowledge individually through the course of daily business operations. I hope that I continue to learn something new every day and always be willing to share that wisdom with whoever wants to listen, like the great barbecue people I met in February.
After all these great experiences at the NBBQA conference, a good thing to remember is….there’s always a BBQA, KCBS, MBN, and other regional barbecue conferences every year!
I highly recommend you attend at least one in the upcoming year.
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!