Barbecue Hits Prime Time
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Who shot JR? … The final episode of “MASH” … The wedding of Luke and Laura … The crowning of the 2013 BBQ Pitmasters Grand Champion. For many aficionados, this barbecue show finale ranks with other great moments in television history.
“BBQ Pitmasters,” preparing to launch its fifth season, airs on the Destination America Channel, owned by Discovery Communications. Each episode features three competitive barbecue teams who slather and smoke it out in a made-for-TV barbecue competition.
Their efforts are judged by a panel of “celebrity” barbecuers who are seasoned cook-off competitors themselves – Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon and a third judge who has rotated each season. The winners from each episode face off in a semi-final heat before competing for the title of BBQ Pitmaster Grand Champion, a $50,000 prize from Kingsford, and entry into the Kingsford Invitational.
The mere fact that these judges are considered celebrities – and boy are they! – is testament to the popularity of the program. The 2013 season boasted an estimated one million viewers per episode and created a host of new barbecue rock stars. The show has about 100,000 “likes” on its Facebook page and 13,000 Twitter followers. Nearly 300 barbecue teams responded to a casting call in hopes of being featured on the show next season.
“BBQ Pitmasters” is the brainchild of John Markus, a former Emmy Award-winning comedy writer and producer of the Cosby Show and other hit television series. It was while working on a pilot with Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken that Markus first developed an obsessive interest in barbecuing.
After self-proclaimed grillmeister Franken’s disastrous attempt to make ribs for dinner one night (according to Markus: “They were so tough a dingo couldn’t get the meat off the bone!”), Markus vowed to smoke his writing partner by doing it better. This led him on a quest to learn as much as possible about authentic, low-and-slow barbecuing, traveling to Kansas City to sample dishes from renowned barbecue restaurants. Markus even paid his way into an apprenticeship with competitive barbecuer Paul Kirk, aka the Baron of BBQ.
When Franken went on to host a liberal-oriented radio show, he enlisted Markus to do live remote broadcasts from barbecue restaurants in “red” states. During these segments Markus would talk about the barbecue and interview diners whose conservative views were an obvious foil to Franken’s liberal positions. Big Bob Gibson’s restaurant in Decatur, Alabama, became a favorite location for the show, and its pitmaster, Chris Lilly, became Markus’ teacher.
Together, Lilly and Markus (now a full-fledged pitmaster in his own right) came up with a concept for a show called the “All-Star BBQ Showdown.” Though the barbecue-meets-Iron-Chef-type show was ultimately canceled, Markus says it became the footprint for all barbecue television series that followed.
The show’s next incarnation was “BBQ Champion Series,” an inside look at the world of competitive barbecuing. The documentary-style series, which followed several teams as they competed at barbecue events around the country, was also canceled. Luckily, the third time was the charm and “BBQ Pitmasters,” with Markus as executive producer and creative barbecue consultant, found a following.
“The first two shows didn’t catch on because there was still a lack of awareness about barbecue,” says Markus. “But each one helped to educate people. Today, even my New York City neighbors are interested in the idea of cooking with wood, fire and smoke, although they’ll probably never have an opportunity to do it. It appeals to people on a primitive level and is a return to things artisanal.”
Although Markus jokes that his hobby is at the point of needing an intervention, he says he is gratified “BBQ Pitmasters” has “raised the level of barbecue and showed what it takes to do this craft properly. I try to put people on the show who are good ambassadors for barbecue. I feel really fortunate that something I love has positively influenced the category. I feel like a proud papa.”
Ray Lampe, a competitive barbecuer and cookbook author who has been featured on “Ultimate BBQ Showdown,” “Tailgate Warriors,” “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” and “Chopped,” agrees that “BBQ Pitmasters” and other shows have had a tremendous influence on consumers.
“‘BBQ Pitmasters’ has helped people understand the difference between grilling and barbecuing and has put smoking on the map,” he says. “I have spent 20 years trying to explain to people through cookbooks and demos that grilling a burger is not the same as real barbecue. Now they get it and embrace it.”
“BBQ Pitmasters” might be the biggest barbecue hit of the past couple years, but it’s not the only one. Bobby Flay is host of an extensive repertoire of grilling-related shows on the Food Network, including “Grill It! With Bobby Flay,” “BBQ with Bobby Flay,” “Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction,” and “Boy Meets Grill.”
Flay is to grilling what “BBQ Pitmasters” is to barbecuing, and fans love his gourmet-but-approachable style. Watching Flay prepare everything from appetizers to desserts on gas grills, charcoal grills, smokers and kamados, viewers have discovered it’s possible to make anything and everything on the grill.
|Barbecue expert Steven Raichlen is host of “Primal Grill” on PBS.|
Barbecue expert Steven Raichlen is host of “Primal Grill” on PBS, the popular follow-up to his previous PBS series, “Barbecue University.” “Primal Grill” educates and entertains viewers with step-by-step instructions for grilling, barbecuing or smoking foods based on each episode’s theme (e.g. fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood, tailgating favorites), spectacular food shots and fascinating stories of barbecue around the world.
Raichlen incorporates different grills and accessory products into the show, emphasizing the techniques viewers can master with the right gear.
The latest Food Network barbecue show, “Bubba-Q,” features Bubba Kolbasowski and a crazy cast of characters creating outrageous, over-the-top, custom barbecue grills and smokers.
These primetime barbecue programs are not just good entertainment, they are highly influential in the marketplace.
“Retailers tell me people frequently come in to buy equipment to make the kind of barbecue they see on shows,” Lampe says. “When I make appearances at retail stores, the questions I get from consumers are much more technical and sophisticated now. ‘BBQ Pitmasters’ is responsible for that. It has opened doors within the category.”
Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), the world’s largest organization of barbecue enthusiasts and sanctioning body for hundreds of barbecue contests in the U.S., has noticed a spike in phone calls following each airing of “BBQ Pitmasters.”
“The show airs on Sunday nights, and every Monday morning we’ll have 40 new applications to join KCBS,” she says.
According to Raichlen, when dealers run DVDs of his show, “Primal Grill,” on continuous loop in their stores, sales of accessory products increase. “The cause-and-effect is amazing,” he says.
Lee Ann Whippen says business in her Chicago-based “modern, urban barbecue restaurant,” Chicago Q, gets a 10-percent boost every time re-runs of her television appearances air. Whippen gained recognition as the lead pitmaster of the “Wood Chicks” competitive barbecue team on the first three seasons of “BBQ Pitmasters.” She also bested Bobby Flay in a barbecue face-off on “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.”
The appearances have generated additional local television, magazine and newspaper publicity for Whippen. “Thanks to these shows, I have not had to spend one dime on advertising,” she says.
|Jim Cattey, Owner of Smoke ‘n’ Fire outside of Kansas City.|
On the Radio
But it’s not just television remotes that are sticky with barbecue sauce today. Radio is home to many shows that dish about this all-American cuisine. Among them is “BBQ Central Radio Show,” a weekly, live, two-hour interactive program hosted by Greg Rempe. In its sixth year, the show covers barbecuing, grilling and smoking, includes listener question-and-answer segments with Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, and features guest appearances by barbecue manufacturers, cook-off winners, celebrity grillers and more.
“Grilling Guys” is billed as “BBQ Radio for Grilling Fanatics.” The show airs Saturday mornings on a Grand Rapids sports-radio station, and 12 more syndicated stations on the Cumulus Network.
Jim Cattey, owner of the Smoke ‘n’ Fire retail store just outside of Kansas City has been broadcasting a live weekly radio show from his showroom floor every spring and summer for years. The show is hosted by a local sports-radio personality who interviews Cattey about barbecue techniques, recipes and tips as he grills something on air.
No matter that listeners can’t see the delicious dishes, Cattey says the word pictures leave audiences salivating. Cattey recreates the on-air demos in his store on Saturdays, drawing many listeners to check it out in person. “There is a very noticeable increase in traffic and sales as a result of the radio show. People really respond to it,” he says.
Perhaps the longest-running barbecue radio show is “Cooking Outdoors with Mr. Barbecue,” which has aired Saturday mornings, year-round since 2001. Hosted by Bruce Bjorkman, the show is heard on 15 stations in the Pacific Northwest and Nebraska on Radio Northwest Network, but fans as far away as Peru, Paris and Afghanistan listen to podcasts online. It reaches a combined quarter-million listeners monthly.
Bjorkman says his listeners prefer technical advice to recipes, and he strives to keep topics timely, covering how-tos for barbecuing, smoking or frying the turkey at Thanksgiving, burger tips for National Hamburger Month in May, and live reports from some of the top barbecue championships in October.
|Photo Courtesy: ©2012 Destination America. Let the judging begin!|
How Can a Retailer Tie In?
Advertising specialist Patricia McKenna, owner of McKenna Media in Red Bank, New Jersey, says advertising on barbecue-themed radio and television shows is a smart move for specialty barbecue retailers.
“Advertising on these programs allows you to focus on your specific audience and generate qualified leads,” she says. McKenna adds that while cable television is a relatively good buy, retailers can expect to pay a premium if they want their ads to run during a specific show. Also, depending on the market, dealers may have to buy spots on multiple cable providers to completely cover an area.
“Still,” she says, “advertising on barbecue shows makes sense because you reach the exact customers you want.”
“Advertisers can align themselves with an expert and enjoy the benefits of a celebrity endorsement,” adds Bjorkman. He says sponsors of his radio show – whether national companies such as pellet-grill manufacturer MAK Grills, or local barbecue retailers and restaurants – uniformly report an increase in sales as a result of the ads.
“Specialized barbecue shows present a rifle-shot approach for retailers, rather than a scattergun approach,” says Bjorkman. “They are highly targeted and therefore don’t waste advertising dollars. Shows like mine put the retailer directly in front of a consumer that is more likely to be interested in their product or service.”
Retailers may want to investigate opportunities to appear as a barbecue expert on television or radio programs in their local markets. Consider pitching an idea for your own barbecue-related segment in which you offer tips, demo different techniques, answer viewer or listener questions and provide recipes. Don’t be intimidated; it’s not much different from the demos you conduct in your store.
Markus suggests retailers watch barbecue and grilling shows regularly and promote the featured trends and techniques with in-store displays and signage that references the shows. Likewise, reference each episode on Facebook and Twitter and remind customers you carry the grills, tools, charcoal, woods and other products to make the foods featured that week. Offer cooking classes that teach customers how to make the low-and-slow barbecue they see on “BBQ Pitmasters” and other shows.
“Most importantly, have someone on the floor who is very knowledgeable about low-and-slow cooking,” Markus advises. “Learn about hardwoods, using lump charcoal vs. briquettes, when to use water or not. Be the expert.”
So, will this be barbecue’s fleeting 15 minutes of fame? Who’s to say? But let’s enjoy the prime-time exposure – and the boost to business – while it lasts.