Looking back at the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, concluded last month in downtown Washington, I have formulated some final thoughts as the ‘cuetravaganza looks ahead to its 20th anniversary next year.
The image that lingers is neither of smoke nor meat, but of people. The two-day shebang drew some 150,000 folks. The horde, stuffed onto Pennsylvania Avenue between Ninth and 14th streets NW (with a little side-street spillover), shuffled like post-surgical patients from one end to the other, and back again. Long lines at popular vendors clogged walkways, further hampering movement.
I am told that opposition from local residents and businesses restrains the battle from adding adjacent streets to the event. But perhaps a redesign of the existing plan would help.
One vendor suggested moving the most popular vendors from the middle to one end to facilitate traffic to other vendors (such as himself). Whether moving them would help, I don’t know. But it is worth thinking about ways to improve the crowd flow.
Other ideas to consider:
* The inclusion of an information booth. Attendees are handed a map of stages and pavilions. But people lose maps. They also sometimes just want to ask directions. I asked a half-dozen battle workers the simplest question: Where is the Safeway stage? Not one of them could tell me. A well-marked booth in the center of the festival would help.
* Training the workers. A lot of the people working the battle are volunteers, many of them from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. Working the ticket line, they are the first point of contact. To a potential patron’s question about whether the price includes free barbecue samples, more than one ticket-taker didn’t know the answer. (FYI: It doesn’t. The fee just gets you in. Attendees aren’t permitted to eat the competitors’ food and must purchase barbecue from approved vendors.)
* Republicans vs. Democrats barbecue contest. Long ago, this competition was part of the battle. It would be fun to bring it back for the 20th anniversary.
Organizers are already working to bring back the Memphis in May rules. In recent years, the battle has been a hybrid, a Kansas City Barbeque Society event one day and a MIM event the next. This year, organizers did away with MIM. The primary difference between the two is that KCBS judging is blind, while MIM includes on-site judging, which provides for lots of pageantry. Last year, the battle had 60 teams. This year, 41. Because of the change, some top teams, including last year’s Grand Champion, Yazoo Delta Q, did not compete this year. Organizers told me they’re likely to bring back MIM next year. Good move!
This year’s addition of the BBQ Bazaar Marketplace, which included a cooking-demonstration stage and local companies selling spice rubs and accessories, was a good idea that should be expanded. The side street on which it was located was never congested, not even when barbecue’s biggest celebrity, Myron Mixon, was competing, Iron Chef-style, against Heath Hall of Pork Barrel BBQ from Del Ray. If carefully designed, the bazaar could handle a few more stalls, including (one hopes) at least one with rigs. An entryway that gives the area a more bazaar-like feel might help create a clearer identity, too.
The battle could use some fine-tuning in preparation for its two-decade anniversary. It is as much street festival as barbecue contest, and its cacophony of corporate hucksterism is off-putting. The name alone, as Smoke Signals never tires of saying, is an indication of how tattooed it is by sponsors. (Which reminds me, the winner of the brisket competition, Cool Smoke, did not use Safeway’s Rancher’s Reserve beef, as most teams did, enticed by a larger cash prize. Cool Smoke used wagyu.)
Smoke Signals fully understands that the battle, like all such events, needs to turn a buck, and that corporate underwriting is essential. (Full disclosure: The Washington Post is one such underwriter.) But a little tweaking can help the battle become a better experience all the way around.
More smoke on the horizon: Memphis, a joint focused on the namesake city’s rib-heavy barbecue, is slated to open next month in the cavernous Mackey’s Pub space at 320 S. 23rd St. in Crystal City, reports the Washington Business Journal.
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