Brian Wahby was in Tennessee, at one of the nation’s top barbecue festivals, when he had a realization.
Wahby, who owns the company behind the recent KC BBQ Festival at Arrowhead, had been having a grand old time in the VIP section, where the brisket was sliced thick and juicy out of the butcher paper and fine Tennessee whiskey flowed like water.
“For some reason I wandered out of the VIP area, to the general admission area, and this woman walks up to me and says, ‘There’s not much going on out here, how do I get back there?’ and I told her I didn’t really know what she could do to get that experience,” he says.
That stuck with Wahby, who owns Eximus Productions, the company that throws St. Louis’s Soulard Mardi Gras festival.
“If you’re in the VIP section, back with the pitmasters and sponsors, some of these barbecue festivals are an amazing time,” he says. “But if you’re just a regular person who shows up, it’s not necessarily a great experience.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about since attending my first fest, about fifteen years ago now. I complained about it bitterly in a blog post, and was invited (“invited” might not be exactly the right word) to compete at another event in the area. That was a lot more fun—these festivals are a totally different deal when you’re behind the proverbial velvet rope.
That’s a dynamic that should and will change in the Insta era, where more people approach sampling with a food critic’s zeal. After a year off, there seems to be renewed energy behind changing the dynamic at these festivals so that the great food isn’t reserved for VIPs, fellow competitors and the judges table, but is sold and served to regular folks, too.
Wahby’s festival drew a decent crowd in its first year and featured some absolutely outstanding ‘cue from locals (Todd Johns of Plowboys helped program the event and smoked up some buffalo) and visiting Texans (all hail Black’s of Lockhart and 2M of San Antonio). If you’re a regular Joe with forty bucks, a couple buddies wanting to drink a few cold ones and split up some brisket, it’s where I’d send you next year.
And that wasn’t even my favorite new BBQ barbecue festival of the summer. Tyler Harp has been pushing to upgrade the familiar in Kansas City ‘cue since starting his Saturday pop-ups in 2019. Two years ago, when we did our biennial ranking of the cities best barbecue, he came out on top—and it seems like most media and onlookers have come to agree, with PR people, influencer types and investors attempting to brand it as “craft barbecue.”
Harp’s inaugural festival, which he threw at a farmers market pavilion in downtown Independence, just blocks from where he grew up, drew many of the best new pitmasters in the city, plus some world-class out-of-towners. Harp teamed up with Joseph Quellar of JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ of Houston to do birria tacos—they have been called the best tacos in the country, and I’m not in position to disagree. Other best bites were the brisket torta from the new Sunbird Barbecue of Longview, Texas, and the sausage from Fox and Pearl chef Vaughn Good.
It was an amazing night in Independence, and everyone I talked to walked away blown away by the quality of the dishes served (the $150 ticket for charity included bites from a dozen-plus places plus “two” beers). The goal, Harp says, was to “showcase the evolution of KC BBQ during the last two years,” which many have missed because of the pandemic. And, indeed, even as somebody who has been immersed in it, seeing it all in one place left a strong impression. I walked out of the event both stuffed with brisket and duly impressed with how much things have evolved recently.
Kansas City is a place where the old guard dies hard, of course, and I don’t expect to see the competition fests take down their tents anytime soon, but these new consumer-focused festivals are coming on like a summer storm.