How to Organize a BBQ Cook-Off Competition

how to organize a bbq cook-off competition

It’s hard to think of anything as exciting as a barbeque cook-off competition. From an audience perspective, it’s a chance to try some world-class eats. Participants get to show off their skills. From a business angle, it’s a perfect way to raise money and awareness for a number of charitable organizations and causes. You can’t go wrong when you combine America’s love for BBQ with the desire to help others.

Or can you? If you’re planning a BBQ cook-off fundraiser or competition for a school or organization in your community, you might worry you’ve bitten off a bit more pulled pork than you can chew. It turns out there’s a lot that’s involved in organizing a successful BBQ cook-off.

If you’re considering holding a BBQ cook-off or you’re already in the thick of the planning, we’ve got a few suggestions for staying on track and making the most of your competition.

Preparation and Getting Sanctioned

In a perfect world, you’d line up a few grills, grab some meat and spend the day creating tongue-tingling, mouthwatering dishes that will cement your reputation in BBQ master history. But there are a few things you need to do first.

1. To Sanction or Not Sanction: Establishing the Rules

In order to establish the rules and guidelines for a BBQ cook-off, you must first decide whether the competition will be a sanctioned event. What does this mean? A sanctioned BBQ cook-off is one that follows the rules established by an organization that supports and promotes BBQ competitions and the organizations that hold them, such as the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS).

When you opt to hold a sanctioned cook-off, you agree to abide by the organization’s rules for competition organization and judging. It may seem daunting to follow their detailed guidelines for success. But sticking to their formula provides a heightened sense of competition and can increase the recognition participants get if they win.

While it does cost money to apply to hold a sanctioned event, it’s a great way to provide structure and legitimacy to your event. Remember, if you opt for a sanctioned competition, you’ll need to follow the sanctioning body’s application guidelines and adhere to its rules regarding planning and deadlines. You’ll also need to make sure the location you’ve chosen can accommodate its requirements for the size of spaces competitors and judges need for the competition.

A sanctioned event does cost more money because there will be an application fee as well as other costs associated with bringing an organization into the competition. If you don’t have the funds to hold a sanctioned event, that’s OK. There’s still plenty of BBQ to be made. You can decide ahead of time on BBQ cook-off rules and how the competition will be judged.

2. Choose a Theme, Goal and Date

Before you even think about all the pork ribs in your future, take a few minutes to outline your goals. Often, groups and communities decide to hold BBQ cook-off competitions to raise money for a cause or organization. While this is a noble goal, it probably won’t net as much as you’re expecting — at least not in the first year. But don’t let that stop you. BBQ competitions are a great way to raise awareness for a cause — and that often does translate into a financial benefit later on.

bbq cookoff theme and date

If this is your first year planning a cook-off, gather two or three other grill masters and use the power of groupthink to decide on a theme. Ask yourselves some questions:

  • Will participants all cook ribs or something else?
  • Will there be multiple categories?
  • Are you looking for an ultimate champion, or will there be different judging categories?

You’ll also need to select a date and location for your event. Frequently, BBQ cook-off competitions are held in conjunction with a larger event, such as a fair or festival. If that’s the case, then you’ll want to coordinate with festival organizers to figure out where all the BBQ cooking and noshing will take place.

If the BBQ cook-off will be a solo event, you’ll need to find a spot that can hold the number of participants you expect and the judges. Ensure each contestant’s station has water and power available, which will enable you to comply with local health code regulations — more about that later.

3. Fundraising

If you do opt to add a fundraising component to your cook-off, then you’ll also need to decide how you plan to raise money during the event. There are a lot of ways to make money off of an event like this, including:

  • Registration fees for BBQ competitors.
  • Entry fee for guests to sample the BBQ after it’s cooked.
  • Additional food and drinks for sale during and after the competition.
  • Games, music and activities for guests to enjoy.
  • Asking for donations.

Promotion & Recruitment

Once you have the logistics in place, it’s time to find those masters of meat who will fire up their grills and get to work creating mouthwatering eats.

1. Finding Competitors for a BBQ Cook-Off

If you opt to hold a sanctioned BBQ cook-off, the sanctioning body can provide competitors. This can be helpful if you’re using a cook-off as an attraction at a county fair or as a component of another larger event. It guarantees you’ll have experienced people cooking good food, and their experience will also help things go more smoothly on the day of the competition.

However, if you use this event to raise awareness of or funds for an organization and you opt not to sanction it, consider an open call to donors and others connected to the organization who might have a secret — or not-so-secret — talent for ‘que. For example, if you’re holding your competition for your school PTA, then consider having a Teacher BBQ Cook-Off. Seek out the teachers and administrators with a knack for grilling and sign them up.

A lot of restaurants might be willing to send a representative to participate in your BBQ cook-off competition, too. The competition will give them a chance to get a little marketing and branding. It can also get them closer to the public so they can forge great relationships with potential patrons.

2. Recruiting Judges for a BBQ Cook-Off

Who determines the winner of your cook-off? If you opt for a sanctioned event, then the sanctioning organization will send experienced judges and provide guidelines on where and how to house them during the event. They’ll also send BBQ cook-off judging sheets the judges will use to determine the winner. This is one of the other benefits of a sanctioned competition.

But if you aren’t holding a sanctioned event, then it’s up to you to recruit your distinguished judges. Determine how many judges you need, and then get to work. You can pull judges from just about anywhere, but if you’re raising money for or awareness of your organization, your board of directors is a great place to start.

What makes a good judge? Although this is a subjective question, you want judges who love BBQ in all forms and have at least some experience with the various types of BBQ that will be cooked during the competition. Someone who doesn’t like meat or doesn’t know the difference between Kansas City- and Memphis-style BBQ is not the best person for the job.

3. Advertising for a BBQ Cook-Off

advertising for bbq cookoff

Although you may be able to rely on word of mouth for some of your advertising, odds are that you’ll need more than that, especially if your goal is to raise money. That means it’s time to advertise. Depending on the size of your cook-off, word of mouth may be sufficient, but most organizers find that they need to rely on a mixture of:

  • Local media: Online, radio, newspaper
  • Active engagement: Flyers and posters placed on public bulletin boards around town.

Also, consider the power of social media when it comes to spreading the word. Creating a Facebook page for your event can go a long way, as can a Twitter feed or Instagram account. Enticing potential cooks, judges and participants with news about the event, interspersed with a few mouthwatering photos, can get people there the day of the competition. It can also be a good way for you to gauge community interest and figure out what else you need to do to get people involved.

4. Load up on Volunteers

You have competitors. You’ve selected judges. Now you need a dedicated crew of volunteers who will make things happen behind the scenes. In some cases, your organization may have a dedicated volunteer base you can turn to — utilize them. But if that’s not the case, get out there and start recruiting volunteers. Volunteers are the backbone of any great BBQ cook-off competition, so don’t skip this step. You need volunteers for:

  • Selling tickets
  • Advertising, such as handing out flyers or spreading the word to friends
  • Event set up and clean up
  • Serving BBQ, sides and drinks after the competition
  • Assisting competitors on the day of competition
  • Obtaining supplies, such as plates, napkins, utensils, cups, etc.

As you recruit people to help you keep your BBQ cook-off competition running smoothly, make sure everyone knows the part they’ll play. That is, they should be given specific details and not just told they’ll help out. You’ll probably want to have a leader managing your team of volunteers to keep the process running like melted butter on a hot steak.

During the BBQ Cook-Off Competition

It’s time for the main event! You’re excited, you’re nervous and you’re hungry to see how it all plays out. Make sure you grab a good breakfast. (Maybe some of last night’s pellet smoker chicken leftovers?) Then, aim to do your part throughout the day by following a few simple steps.

1. Offer Everyone What They Need

You should have already arranged for each competitor to have a site with access to water and power. In most cases, they’ll bring their own grill or smoker along with the vehicle they use to move it. When they arrive, direct each participant to their assigned site, making sure to provide a volunteer to help answer their questions and help them connect to power and water prior to the start of the competition.

Bonus points if you set up people to help with the hauling from place to place. Many competitors could use a helping hand to get them set up and ready for the heat of the cook-off competition.

2. Greet the Judges

Greet your judges and make them comfortable in the judging tent. Give them each identical guidelines for each category and understand how they will judge each dish. If your judges arrive early, offer them information about what else is going on during and after the competition, so they aren’t just sitting around bored while they wait to judge the BBQ.

It’s also a good idea to assign volunteers to work with the judges during competition day. If your judges are from out of town or haven’t been involved in any earlier planning aspects, they’ll likely have a lot of questions and benefit from having a volunteer to make sure they’re in the right place, at the right time, having a good time.

3. Assign Volunteers to Their Stations

On the day of the event, give each volunteer a clear assignment and make sure they understand who their point of contact will be if they run into issues at any point. This helps them know where they’re needed, and it lets you know that everything is being taken care of. Give them a copy of your written BBQ cook-off rules, too, just in case. Although your volunteers can’t assist with the cooking, it’s a good idea to keep a few of them in close proximity to the competitors in case there’s a problem or someone needs clarification about the rules or timing of the competition.

volunteers for bbq cookoff

When you provide nearby volunteers to the cooking sites, the competitor doesn’t need to leave their station and has someone they can rely on to explain what’s going on. You’ll want additional volunteers assigned to:

  • Selling tickets
  • Greeting guests and judges
  • Serving food

And don’t forget to assign a cleanup team, too.

4. Get the Party Started

Good-natured competitions can be fierce, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Plan live music, lawn games and other activities to keep guests busy while the BBQ is cooking. If your guests are already enjoying themselves, the BBQ itself is just the icing on the proverbial cake. And if you’re looking to raise money and/or awareness for a certain cause or organization, competitors’ good moods will go a long way toward helping you achieve your goal.

You may even want to give the platform to someone from the organization you’re supporting. That way, the person can talk a bit about the charity and elicit more donations on the spot at the cook-off competition.

Additional Tips for Hosting a Top-Notch BBQ Competiton

tips for hosting a bbq competition

Organizing a BBQ cook-off competition is a challenging but rewarding task. Sanctioning can be helpful as you look toward your ultimate goal, but in some cases, you may opt to go at it on your own. As you follow the guidelines and suggestions above, there are a few basic things to keep in mind.

1. Adhere to Local Health Codes

Anytime you host a public event that includes food, you must adhere to your local health codes to prevent problems later. You can find details about your locality’s requirements by visiting your local government’s website. It’s a good idea to share these details with everyone volunteering and competing along with the rest of your BBQ cook-off rules. You can’t be too safe or too thorough!

2. Don’t Do It Alone

There’s nothing like a BBQ competition to bring out your down-home, independent, do-it-yourself spirit, but resist the urge to go it alone. Initially, work closely with a dedicated team that has a vested interest in seeing this event succeed. Later, expand into a team of volunteers who can help with various tasks leading up to and during the competition. Working with others will increase your chances of pulling off a successful event, and you’ll enjoy it enough that you’ll want to repeat it again next year.

3. Don’t Forget The Details

Napkins might seem like a little thing, but a BBQ competition with no napkins can spell disaster when people eat platefuls of sticky ribs. Details are the key to success, so sit down in advance with your planning team and create an extensive list of all the little things that will make the competition a success. Assign responsibilities to each team member rather than relying on one person to make sure everything is in order on the big day. And don’t forget those napkins.

4. Ask for Feedback

Before you send your competitors and attendees off, ask them to fill out quick barbeque cook-off surveys. Their feedback will help you design stronger cook-off competitions year after year. You could even create an online form to make it super easy for everyone to give you fast input.

BBQ Cook-Off and Grilla Grills

Need supplies for an upcoming cook-off? Grilla Grills pellet grills make a great addition to any BBQ competition. They’re simple to use and their results — mouthwatering BBQ — are out of this world. Browse our selection of wood pellet grills and smokers to see what would fit your needs, and contact us with any questions. Get cooking today.

bbq competition grills
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