KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After attending the National Barbecue & Grilling Association (NBBQA) 2018 National Conference in March, it became clear to me that the world of barbecue is very different than it was 10 years ago. It’s now populated by competitive and savvy business operators looking to capitalize on every available technology and social media-based marketing opportunity.
Joel Crews
Joel Crews

Today’s competitive pitmasters and barbecue restaurant operators are recognized with national culinary awards and regional rankings, and create heated debates as ribs, brisket and pork butt are sought out by diners across the country. The variety of rubs, sauces and the array of high-tech gadgets available are almost endless, including grills and smokers that routinely cost thousands of dollars. What might have once been considered a passive community of fire-loving, beer swilling wannabe pitmasters, has evolved. The barbecue industry today is comprised of a passionate and tight-knit community of competition teams, resilient restauranteurs, innovative suppliers and world-class marketers.

A perfect example is Chad Ward, owner of Whiskey Bent BBQ, a competition team in Lakeland, Florida. Ward’s prowess as a pitmaster put him on the map, but it’s his infectious personality and barbecue expertise that has made him a superstar online. Ward moderated panel discussions with many barbecue icons during the event, sharing some of his barbecue experiences in the process and it quickly became obvious why he is a rising star. He’s one of many pitmasters who’ve earned the endorsements of suppliers to the barbecue segment and bolstered his status even more. As the director of marketing – BBQ for Traeger Pellet Grills, Ward draws thousands of online views, likes and shares with his Traeger cooking demonstrations in addition to his “In the Pit” barbecue show each week on outdoorcookingchannel.com.

An early adopter of marrying technology with barbecue, Greg Rempe was a presenter at a session titled, “The Age of Digital Content.” Rempe hosts a live, weekly podcast, “The BBQ Central Show,” which he started in 2005. In 2008, the show evolved to a “live” weekly podcast on internet radio. He refers to his show as the “ESPN of the live fire cooking industry.” He regularly interviews competitive barbecue cooks, cookbook authors and other barbecue experts. The wildly popular show also spawned The BBQ Central Show website, a sponsor-supported information portal that includes news and archived podcasts from previous interviews along with links to the show’s social media platforms.

Rempe eagerly shared advice for up-and-coming barbecue stars who have their sights set on maximizing their exposure by marketing their expertise to a community of eager-to-learn barbecuers. He attributes his success to his access to a steady stream of guests, committing to a schedule and consistently following the schedule, all to avoid what he calls pod-fade, which happens when a podcast loses momentum and ultimately dies on the virtual vine.

Malcom Reed, pitmaster with Killer Hogs BBQ, found gold with his “HowToBBQRight” YouTube channel, which has a following of about 238,000 subscribers. The channel provides weekly barbecue tips and recipes in an unpretentious style. He shared the story of his unlikely success with humility and humor, two traits shared by almost all of the veteran pitmasters.

“We just kind of found our way in the YouTube world,” Reed said during the NBBQA’s digital content session. He and his wife began producing the videos using a flip phone and uploading them to YouTube so subscribers to their newsletter could view them. They’ve since upgraded cameras slightly, but videos are still produced from the couple’s home and a new one is posted each week. The videos drive viewers to the Killer Hogs website, which includes an online store where barbecue tools, sauces, rubs and promotional hats and t-shirts are sold. He attributes the success he’s had on YouTube to his genuine approach.

“I handle my videos and my content like I’m talking to my buddies; like they’re there cooking with me,” he said. Never did Reed fathom he’d have the following he does when he started, but he believes YouTube is appealing to the masses.

When it comes to digital marketing though, “the worst thing you can do is not do anything,” Reed said, “whether it be blogs, podcast or videos. Marketing is changing. You can reach so many more people without spending as much money by doing social media now. It’s changing the face of business.”