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Hearth & Home October 2014

Photo courtesy: ©2014
Southern Reel, Nashville, Tennessee.

Bonding with Barbecue

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Prior to every concert, the Zac Brown Band shows a great deal of southern hospitality by treating 150 lucky fans to a gourmet barbecue and quality time with the group.

The Zac Brown Band has a multi-platinum hit called “Chicken Fried,” but the group might be even better known for its barbecues.

Before every show, the Grammy Award-winning country band bonds with fans at a barbecue called an “Eat & Greet.” Unlike most celebrity meet-and-greet sessions where fans parade past, shake hands and snap a selfie before moving on, front man Zac Brown describes his version as a family picnic.

“We’d rather hang out, share a meal, have a conversation, and get to know our fans,” he said before a recent Eat & Greet event.

L to R: Chef Rusty Hamlin and Zac Brown at the Eat & Greet.

Indeed, Brown and his band have built a legion of dedicated fans, known as the “Zamily,” over countless plates of grilled goodies since the group started hosting the barbecues in 2009. The 150 tickets to each pre-show party – scored by lucky fan-club lottery winners, local radio station contestants and other special guests – are arguably more coveted than front row seats to the show itself.

Brown greets and chats with everyone, welcoming them as if to his own backyard barbecue. Band members actually man the buffet line, spooning portions onto attendees’ plates, while fielding questions about the latest album, their families, and life on the road. When everyone has been served, the musicians fill their plates and grab seats among the guests to chat and eat. The rules at the Eat & Greet are simple: no picture-taking (“It wastes time and isn’t conducive to having a conversation,” according to Brown.), and you have to try at least a taste of everything on your plate.

No problem there; most plates are practically licked clean. It’s no wonder. A recent menu included three of Brown’s own recipes – grilled beef tenderloin with bourbon-brown sugar Georgia Clay Rub, grilled pork tenderloin in coconut-milk Love Sauce, and a mustard-based coleslaw he calls Pocketknife Slaw – as well as cantaloupe gazpacho salad; fresh-ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms; grilled green beans with spicy artichoke, tomato and basil sauce; summer corn pudding; and blueberry cobbler with lemon whipped cream for dessert.

Chef Rusty Hamlin cooking on a Big Green Egg XL grill.

“Most people expect hamburgers and hot dogs, or maybe pulled pork, so they are pretty surprised by the food,” says chef Rusty Hamlin, who oversees the Eat & Greets. Hamlin is a rock star in his own right and the line to meet him at any given Eat & Greet is nearly as long as the one for Brown. He starts each day in the early morning hours, visiting local farmers and produce markets, and develops the menu from scratch based on what’s available fresh that day. By lunchtime he’s back at the band’s mobile chuck wagon, a 54-ft. tractor trailer rig nicknamed “Cookie,” where he and a staff of five set about making dinner before the Eat & Greet crowd arrives around 5 pm.

The idea for these barbecues came about one day in 2002 when old friends Hamlin and Brown, who himself loves to cook and owns restaurants in his native Georgia, were discussing how to make meet-and-greet interactions more personal and enjoyable for fans.

“The Eat & Greets evolved from that discussion,” says Hamlin, a culinary-school trained chef and owner of the Atlanta-based restaurant Atkins Park. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to travel the country and feed fans?’” The idea simmered until 2009 when Brown, after his first commercial success with “Chicken Fried,” contacted Hamlin about making the Eat & Greets a reality.

Hamlin left his restaurant kitchen and secured a 14-ft. food truck that the band pulled from venue to venue behind the tour bus. “I had one helper and we worked out of coolers,” he recalls. It took about a year and a half to master the logistics of shopping, planning and preparing a gourmet feast for 150 people out of a field kitchen in a new city every night.

By then the team was more than ready to trade in the food truck for the current, custom-designed mobile kitchen. Cookie is outfitted with a six-burner stove, four ovens, a fryer, walk-in refrigerator, a three-compartment sink, 18-ft. slide-out prep area, and two Big Green Egg XL grills.

Painted with pin-up-girl-inspired murals, and mounted with a retractable awning on one side to shade picnic tables for dining, “Cookie is like a billboard for the band going down the road,” says Hamlin. “The Eat & Greets make fans for life.”

Besides helping the band connect with fans, Hamlin strives to bring awareness to local farmers. “I get to go around the country meeting amazing people who produce fruit, vegetables, meat, and even honey,” he says. “I have a greater appreciation for where food comes from and a larger respect for what farmers do. I see it as a personal responsibility to encourage people to get back to basics when it comes to food, and to help promote local farmers.”

The chow line for some gourmet barbecue.

At every Eat & Greet, Hamlin speaks to the crowd about the food being served, gives a shout-out to the invited local farmers and purveyors, and encourages fans to support them.

In addition to spreading awareness of the farm-to-table movement, Hamlin is also unwittingly introducing an elevated level of grilling and barbecuing to a whole new audience. Hamlin’s two XL Big Green Eggs, which he relies on to cook everything from steak to string beans, are in full view of the crowd and often spark conversation. He extolls the virtues of cooking over hardwood lump charcoal on the kamado-style cookers to Eat & Greet attendees who hang on his every word.

“I’m blown away by how much I can do on it,” he says. “I use it for everything from cold smoking fish to searing meat over high heat. I have done wood-fired pizzas for the Eat & Greets that are amazing. It helps expand what I can prepare on the road.”

The chef estimates his enthusiasm for the Egg – something he often mentions in social media posts about event menus and recipes – has likely resulted in sales of hundreds of the kamado-style cookers over the past couple years.

“At least one person every day – and sometimes five or six a day – will ask me about the Egg, or say they just bought one and want to talk about different techniques,” he says. “Our fans are very interested in the food we serve.”

No surprise then, that Big Green Egg has become very interested in the band, as well. After learning of Hamlin’s use of the cookers, the company arranged to become a sponsor of the Eat & Greet events, supplying grills and charcoal for the tours.

What’s in it for them?

“Zac Brown Band has millions of fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter,” says Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement for Big Green Egg. “When the chef posts or Tweets about the Egg, it exposes us to their fans. We can’t necessarily pin product sales to a social media post, but we’ve noticed when Chef Rusty posts, people will start talking about the Egg in their replies. It definitely helps to raise awareness, and people start linking the Egg with the Zac Brown Band.”

Burson says the band’s fans are right in the company’s target-market sweet spot. According to a study by the Country Music Association, the average country music fan is 45 years old with an income of just over $75,000; 75 percent own a home, and about one third are married with children. “This is exactly the scenario when people start to upgrade their grills and we hope they’ll consider ours,” says Burson.

Zac Brown fans enjoying the Eat & Greet.

The success of this relationship has led the company to sponsor other country music artists, including Florida Georgia Line, Justin Moore, and Tyler Farr. For instance, at Florida Georgia Line’s pre-concert “Tailgate Parties,” local Big Green Egg distributors and dealers set up displays, conduct demos, offer tasting samples, and give away branded beer koozies, bottle openers and other fun swag. While fans of this band skew younger than those of the Zac Brown Band, Burson says the company still benefits from the alliance.

“Not everyone who attends these concerts is at a point where they can buy a grill like Big Green Egg, but in five years they might be,” she says. “We’re not just selling grills today, but are planting seeds for the future, too. When they’re ready, that’s the grill they’ll know, remember and buy.”

Certainly fans bonding with the Zac Brown Band at an Eat & Greet will remember a fun night, a fantastic show, and a delicious gourmet barbecue to try to replicate at home. “Having good food while on tour is a gift for us as much as our fans,” says Hamlin.

No word on whether the band has plans to rename their hit “Chicken Barbecued.”

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