The Smokin’ Eagles International BBQ Fest kicks off its fifth year Friday evening at Gateway Harbor and the organizer and founder of the event, Honcho Gregory, hopes it’ll be bigger than ever.
“We must be moving in the right direction because we’ve got non-barbecue vendors calling us and asking if they can get a spot,” Gregory, of Wheatfield, said. “We’re tapped into the local business community and trying to get them to back us.”
Gregory said he hopes that with enough growth and time, the festival — which brought about 28,000 people to the twin cities last year — could be the size of Canal Fest or the Taste of Buffalo.
Joyce Santiago, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, said the event is an opportunity for area businesses “to capitalize on all these people” flocking to the area for some authentic barbecue.
She said she sees the festival as just one more event — like the Gateway Harbor Concerts and the Taste of the Tonawandas — to bring to the area people who have never visited the twin cities.
“The more (events) you have, the better it is,” Santiago said. “You’re bringing people down to see the area for a purpose, but then they come back when they discover what else is here. Now that we have three brand new restaurants that just opened I think there are even more reasons for people to come (visit).”
And while Gregory hopes to draw even more Western New Yorkers to the three-day food event, he’s having no troubles getting a few people to drive hundreds of miles just to compete and vend.
From Florida to Texas, Tennessee and Georgia, serious barbecue competitors are making the trip to the Tonawandas to sling their prize-winning recipes for ribs, pork, chicken and brisket.
Returning grand champion Rooster Roberts, of Arcadia, Fla., is returning to defend his title. He and his wife, Lisa, took first place in the pork and ribs categories, securing their top spot. The Roosters wil also be vending, letting Western New Yorkers get a taste of their Memphis-style barbecue, which he describes as a dry barbecue, depending less on sauces and more on a good dry rub.
“So you can taste a little south in your mouth,” he said with a laugh.
Rooster travels the country year-round, entering some 35 barbecue competitions as his full-time job. He said he’s impressed with the quality of barbecue found in Western New York.
“When we first started this competition five years ago, what we’ve found is people thought chicken on the grill with sauce is barbecue,” Gregory said. “When we’re talking barbecue, we’re talking low and slow and people are starting to understand this.”
Which is why there’s a backyard barbecue contest event lined up Aug. 12 for people looking to test the water when it comes to barbecue competitions. This event consists of just ribs and chicken, whereas Saturday’s larger competition includes ribs, chicken, pork and brisket. The grand champions of both events automatically win a spot in the Best of the Best barbecue competition in Waycross, Ga. A fifth category Sunday is for the best apple pie.
Deadline to sign up to compete is Wednesday, but for those not interested in cooking, there are numerous vendors selling drinks, fried dough, pies, corn and barbecue supplies in addition to eight barbecue vendors from near and far.
“The quality of barbecue in Western New York is rising,” Gregory said.
“When you invite someone for a barbecue over at your house you’re sharing with them something that’s most precious in the world: it’s time.”
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