Saturday, May 02, 2009
Cook up North Carolina Barbecue, and they will come . . . maybe.
The Salisbury, NC pork cooking competition yesterday (5-1-2009) didn't draw the expected crowd as reported by the Salisbury Post. In fact, there were only a half dozen people enjoying chopped pork shortly after noon.
It did rain before the event was scheduled to open. I know that's the case, because I was standing out in the rain grilling hamburgers and chicken for a cook out for one of my college classes. That, of course, puts a damper on an outdoor event. But, it doesn't have to be a deal breaker.
Here are Some Thoughts and Tips for Holding a Successful Outdoor Cooking Competition:
1. Get the Word Out - It's pretty obvious that people have to know about an event before they're going to show up. Traditional media is a good starting point, but online notices make a huge difference. I blogged the Salisbury barbecue event but only the day prior (which isn't enough time for people to find it), because I didn't know about the cook off until the day prior and only because I have Google alerts set for news on barbecue. Getting information to key bloggers and to members of the community who use social media sites like MySpace and Facebook can make a real difference (and at no cost).
2. Select the Right Day - Where were the people yesterday (Friday) at noon? Hum. I would wager that most were at work. That includes folks who might actually cook in a competition (only two teams were on site cooking - others trucked barbecue in from area restaurants). Saturday makes a lot more sense for a cook off and especially one that is labor intensive like barbecue.
3. A Rose by Another Name - Be sure the event title is transparent and that the words are easily searchable online. Barbecue was spelled Bar-Be-Cue or BBQ online. The alternate spellings may set the event apart from the big yearly Barbecue Festival down the road in Lexington, but it makes it harder to find information. It's like calling your beauty shop "Kut and Kurl." Try to find that in the phone book if you don't know to look under K.
4. Get Name Value on the Judges - Yes. It's a good idea to have barbecue experts on the panel to judge barbecue. That makes sense. However, food experts are not generally known widely outside the foodie community. Also, it seems odd when all judges come from outside the area (Raleigh, Cary, Burlington, Tennessee). Your locals will likely not know the out-of-towners. So, mix in some influential area personalities. Consider popular politicians, radio DJs, or others who will be known to the potential attendees.
5. Hard to Sell Grab Bags - The prices for barbecue at the event were reasonable in general; however, a first time event can be hard to sell. The $10 sample card to taste all the different barbecues could be a couple of bites or could be a lot of bites depending on the number of entries. The same issue comes up with the $2 price on samples. That's pretty high if samples are in the tiny sample cups like at the grocery store. It also was unclear how sandwiches and plates would be handled. Could you wander around and look at the offerings and select the one you wanted to try/buy or were all the barbecue entries pooled with the flavors mixed? Plates were only offered after 5 p.m., and it wasn't spelled out whether they were full dinner plates (slaw, buns, sides) or just a larger portion of straight barbecue. And, was the sauce included? Be specific, so people know what to expect.
6. Reason to Come and Hang Out - The Barbecue Cook Off was free (other than the cost of the food), but only two teams set up and cooked. That doesn't make for a festival atmosphere. A stage with entertainment gives folks a reason to wander over and stay. Of course, that does work better on the weekend rather than on a work day - even if it's a Friday. Add some fun for the kids too, and that will bring out families (and more food sold).
I'm not bashing on the Salisbury Barbecue Festival or the planners. I know very well how much work and effort it takes to put together a big event and how disappointing it can be to have a lower turn out than expected. I do hope they will continue to have the barbecue event and that the tips help anyone putting together a food festival or cooking competition.