The St. Thomas Ribfest looks, smells and sounds like any other ribfest. Sunscreened families line up, sometimes for close to an hour, to pay $23 for a full rack of pork ribs or $13 for a half. There are lemonade stands, funnel cakes, face painters, ice cream vendors, children playing and five boisterous, smoking rib vendors. Four middle-aged men jam on Led Zeppelin covers at the bandshell in Pinafore Park, a verdant 90-acre space on the southern edge of town and a 30-minute drive south of London, Ont.
There is one important distinction about this ribfest: It is run by a 28-year-old entrepreneur and rib-world interloper named Justin Brown. “We’re blacklisted,” he explains. Rotary International, whose local chapters run more ribfests than any other organization in Ontario, has cost Mr. Brown award-winning ribbers, national sponsors and local charities, all of whom fear eviction from lucrative Rotary events if they work with him. “I’m just trying to put on an event in a city that doesn’t have one,” Mr. Brown says. “I like doing it, and I’m not gonna stop doing it. Take my sponsors, fine. I’ll find other people that are interested.”
In a smoky subculture with the scent of the Deep South and a firm footing in Ontario, several Rotarians view Mr. Brown’s fledgling for-profit rib series as an affront to their multimillion-dollar charitable system. “It’s pretty public that we’re upset about it,” says Jeremy Racicot, co-chair of Canada’s Largest Ribfest, a Rotary event in Burlington that many feel is uncomfortably close to Mr. Brown’s upstart Hamilton Ribfest. “It was tough for us to hear that there was a for-profit series that was sparking up, and it was in direct competition with our brand.”
It wasn’t just Hamilton. Mr. Brown has started ribfests in Welland (near St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest, 20 kilometres and three weeks apart), Georgetown (19 km from Rotary Rib n’ Roll, in Brampton) and Newmarket (26 km from Richmond Hill Ribfest, a municipally run event), all under his sleek Northern Heat Rib Series brand. This year, the St. Thomas Ribfest preceded the for-profit London Ribfest, run by Doug Hillier, by just a single week. But Mr. Hillier can handle it, and says he’s “disgusted” by how Rotary clubs have treated Mr. Brown. “Even though I do not like the St. Thomas Ribfest coming so close to me, I believe they have the right to do that,” he says. “Small business is how this country is run.”
Several ribbers still side with the Rotary. One told me Northern Heat would “kill the industry”; others believe Mr. Brown’s business strategy is parasitical, draining nearby markets for his own private gain and working with charities as a guise. “Despite what [Mr. Brown] says, the fact is, he’s worded it very carefully,” says John Kasias, who runs Railroad Ribs. “If you know them, you know that’s lip service.”
In early 2015, Rotary clubs circulated a letter among ribbers admonishing Mr. Brown, suggesting the Rotary would protect its own interests. “They didn’t outright say, ‘We don’t want you doing this’ or ‘You can’t do this,’ ” says Tom Diavolitsis, who has run Boss Hogs BBQ for 10 years. Nonetheless, Mr. Diavolitsis quit Northern Heat’s Hamilton show. “It scared me,” he says. “They made a point of kicking Victor out.… I don’t want to fall into that same fate.”
Victor Anastasiadis, the 21-year-old who inherited the lauded Kentucky Smokehouse chain from his father, chose to remain in Mr. Brown’s rib series; Mr. Brown is good friends with Mr. Anastasiadis’s older brother. After refusing to abandon Northern Heat, Kentucky Smokehouse was axed from Canada’s Largest Ribfest. Soon after, Mississauga followed suit.
Mr. Anastasiadis declined to comment for this story, but Rotary members are unapologetic. “We do not just do this on a whim. We spent a lot of time and a lot of consultation,” says Robert Peeling, the Burlington event’s co-founder. “We don’t help people setting out for private profit.”
Mr. Brown avoids phrasing it this way, but Northern Heat has exposed cracks in Ontario’s ribfest industry. Everyone The Globe and Mail spoke with agrees ribfests are good for local economies, charities and private business people. But Rotarians believe that donating 100 per cent of their profit is the right thing to do, while Mr. Brown, who has yet to profit from any of his ribfests, is content committing to a 10- or 15-per-cent donation in the future and use the rest to grow his business. Neither side says it wants to fight: Rotarians want Mr. Brown to simply move his events farther away, while Mr. Brown has already shifted around controversial dates to pre-empt confrontation.
But the schism exists, and ribbers looking to expand their businesses are left in limbo. “There’s nothing for them to say Boss Hogs can go to Burlington every year – I have to perform, I have to run a clean operation, I have to be professional,” Mr. Diavolitsis says. “But normally that’s always been enough. I’ve never had an issue where I’ve had to think twice about where I’m going.”
He sighs and leans back. “But I guess that’s just growing pains now.”
“If I have a month of raining, my year is over”
Ontario has hit peak ribfest. This is a distinctly heartland phenomenon: More than two-million people will visit one of the province’s 65 ribfests this summer. (There are only three dedicated ribfests in British Columbia; Alberta has two.) “We pretty much saturated the market,” says Gus Sakellis, owner of Ribs Royale. “There’s nowhere else, really, in Ontario to go right now.” There are ribfests in towns as small as Gananoque, population 5,191, and as remote as Owen Sound, Timmins and Cornwall. In 2012, organizers in Toronto commemorated the 100th Grey Cup by bringing a mini-ribfest to Front Street; this year, Ottawa is faced with a ribfest rivalry, with two in the downtown core and one in the suburb of Kanata, while Etobicoke hosted the world’s first-ever ribfest wedding, officiated in the ski chalet of Centennial Park.
Ribfests are popular, partly, because they’re successful. Burlington’s ribfest alone generated $3.3-million in economic activity around the city in 2014, including taxes, bought food and paid accommodation; on top of that, it raised $230,000 for charity. Even smaller festivals punch above their weight: The Kemptville and Brockville ribfests, both organized by local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters, garnered about 40,000 combined visitors in 2015 and raised more than $150,000, co-ordinators say. Virtually every ribfest will raise more than $1 for every attendee, with an average of 38,000 attendees in 2014. Every festival’s financing scheme differs slightly, but the pillars are constant: diligent fundraising, beer sales, vendor payments and corporate sponsorships.
These dollar figures preclude the ribbers themselves, whose business is made exclusively from hawking meat. Ribbers’ profits are closely guarded secrets, making ribbing perhaps Ontario’s largest cash-only industry. Vendors don’t accept credit or debit cards, and asking for a receipt will earn you a quizzical look from the cashier. One ribber sent me an angry e-mail when asked how much sauce he went through in a season. Many cite competitive or safety reasons for this; several ribbers in Ontario have been robbed in the past.
Whatever they make, they spend much of it in overhead. To appear at a ribfest, they have to pay an entry fee of a few thousand dollars, and there’s also a small staff of cooks and cashiers to be paid and put up in hotels for a weekend. This is to say nothing of start-up costs: A decent-sized rig costs $250,000, according to Matt Smith, a veteran ribber who runs Gator BBQ. On top of printing new banners every year and buying the rig itself, which unfurls, Transformers-style, from a meek box of sheet metal into an open-kitchen restaurant replete with at least one (but more often two) $20,000 smokers jammed with up to 700 pounds of meat, there are safety certification costs, drivers’ fees and energy bills.
“I don’t make money till the last two shows,” says Bernie Gerl, who runs the storied Camp 31 out of Paris, Ont. Mr. Gerl says his income is on par with an average restaurant’s, with one important caveat: His venture is weather-dependent. “If I have a month of raining, my year is over,” he says. “This is a messed up business.”
The only insurance against the rain is keeping busy. It’s a big investment to build a second rig, let alone a third, but the rewards are significant. Boss Hogs and Gator BBQ spend summers in two provinces at once, sending one rig each across Western Canada while leaving their others in Ontario. Ideally, they can put each team to work every weekend of the summer, and spread them out enough that a storm won’t ruin business for all their teams.
This is why ribbers saw Northern Heat as an opportunity. Mr. Smith, like Mr. Diavolitsis, had planned on expanding with Mr. Brown’s rib series. Why not? He had the extra rig and wanted to keep his staff employed. Once the Rotary’s letter spread around, however, Mr. Smith withdrew from several Northern Heat shows, deeming it not worth the risk. As he put it to me, “Ribbers are gonna have to walk softly there.”
“A hurtin' little place”
It’s hard to understand Mr. Brown’s side of the story unless you’ve visited his hometown, St. Thomas. Once a booming railway hub before the train industry collapsed, the town thrived as an automotive-parts manufacturer until the 2008 recession sunk the local Ford and Sterling factories, slashing 6,000 jobs in the process. “We lost everything,” my cab driver told me as we passed the city’s most famous landmark, a statue of a carnival elephant named Jumbo who was struck by a train and killed here in 1885. “It’s a hurtin’ little place.”
Mr. Brown wasn’t living in St. Thomas during the recession, but he knew what was happening. Though boyish and bro-ish, a sharp business savvy undercuts his grey Blue Jays cap and scruffy blond beard. He started a landscaping business while studying at the University of Western Ontario, and has been organizing events for just as long; his resume includes charity golf tournaments and London’s annual Block Party music festival. But he hadn’t done much for his hometown, 30 kilometres south. “I’ve got all these friends back here, and I’ve got family back here, and I’ve got ties the community,” he recalls thinking. “Why shouldn’t I do an event here? Why am I not going back? Why am I avoiding my hometown?”
In 2012, an idea popped into Mr. Brown’s head: Why not a ribfest? He spent the next two years developing the idea with the city’s Special Events Committee and the Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs, a government-funded business incubator that’s operated in St. Thomas since 1986. He brought it to city council in May 2014, three months before the event debuted. “It’s something residents were waiting for,” says Mayor Heather Jackson. “We don’t have a lot of big events. Three or four, tops. Nothing to the scale like this one.”
For that first year, Mr. Brown brought in veteran rib teams, including Kentucky Smokehouse, Boss Hogs and Gator BBQ. His mother helped organize volunteers; his father handled the beer. As many as 12,000 people came out — more than one-quarter of the city’s population. Everyone agreed it was a success. Mr. Brown relaxed.
It was autumn, while Mr. Brown was sitting in his marketing office in downtown Toronto, that he began seriously reflecting on the event. He thought about how much he’d enjoyed putting on the ribfest, and how he’d like to do more. Then, the next obvious question formed: Where could he go?
He began randomly typing Ontario towns and the word “ribfest” into Google. He couldn’t go too far, nor could he double-up over Rotary territory. Eventually he settled on five cities that, while near preexisting ribfests, he still regarded as “underserved” communities. Georgetown residents could drive out to Brampton’s ribfest, but don’t 40,000 people deserve an event of their own?
Ultimately, the guiding question always led him back home. “If I’m gonna do another ribfest, where could I do it? Where are the ribfests now?” he recalls thinking. “Where are cities like St. Thomas?”
“Nobody knew what pulled pork was”
Some Canadians spend entire summer vacations road tripping between Ontario ribfests, marking a devotion that’s hard to imagine transposed onto, say, chicken wings. Wings are small and ubiquitous, whereas ribs are goofy and flamboyant, trickling with Down South exoticism and eaten, necessarily, in a vulnerable, child-like state – with messy hands and lots of napkins. This is the paradox of ribs: They are a food nobody should want to eat in public, yet millions in Ontario do.
It’s impossible to pinpoint why ribfests erupted in Ontario, but Mr. Hillier, whose London Ribfest is the oldest in Canada, has a theory. Barbecue festivals date back to the mid-19th century, when they were rowdy political events for U.S. presidential candidates such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. In the background, black slaves would spend up to 12 hours roasting the meat.
Wealthy slave owners only wanted prime cuts: chicken breasts, rump roasts, pork shoulders. “The joke’s on them, because they didn’t get the sweetest meat – the sweetest meat is closest to the bone,” Mr. Hillier says. “Ribs, chicken wings, collard greens – all those things were soul food. We try to soften this, but it was the food of the slaves.”
Those who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad brought along the tradition of fire-smoked, open-grill cooking, Mr. Hillier says. Over the following decades, former slaves would celebrate Emancipation Day in border cities such as Windsor and Sarnia with massive barbecue festivals.
The competition element has a foggier backstory. As Jonathan Deutsch and Megan J. Elias write in Barbecue: A Global History, “Like barbecue itself, barbecue competitions are a simple concept that probably evolved in multiple locations, at multiple times, whenever one person said to another, ‘My barbecue is better than yours.’ ” Canada’s first was what is today London Ribfest, which began in 1985 as a barbecue competition. Mr. Hillier believes its founder was a man named Bill who, in 1988, handed it over to the local Boys and Girls Club, which rechristened it a ribfest but gave it up to Mr. Hillier in 2009 after deciding it was too much work for their volunteer group. Mr. Hillier has not been able to track Bill down to confirm the early details, though. “Some say he died of a heart attack, motorcycle accident,” he says. “Nobody knows.”
Around that same time, Larry Murphy – the grandfather of Canadian ribbing, a 63-year-old Alabaman with a wrinkled forehead whose thick drawl rhymes “sauce” with “house” – was running a general store called Camp 31 in Brewton, Ala. In barbecue circles, the state is known for its abundance of rural pigs and hickory wood, an ideal combination for smoked ribs. Mr. Murphy made his so well that Brewton’s police department sponsored him in a barbecue cook-off in Pensacola, Fla., where he surprised even himself by winning first place for sauce and ribs. “I wasn’t no competition,” he recalls today. “I was just down tryin’ to do the best I could.” He decided to turn his store into a rib shack and take his business on the road, touring across North America.
“He was a player down in the States, but he became the king up here,” says Mr. Smith of Gator BBQ. Back then, Mr. Smith was working for the carnival company Conklin Shows, which recruited Mr. Murphy into their national tours. “Nobody knew what pulled pork was,” he recalls. “Had to put a little extra on the ribs just to get people to taste it.”
Ribfests proved as popular as Mr. Murphy’s pulled pork until the Rotary got involved in 1994. Members Robert Peeling and John Thorpe were tasked with finding a new fundraiser when they considered a ribfest. Mr. Peeling chanced upon Mr. Murphy ribbing at the Canadian National Exhibition, and, after a 90-minute conversation that day and subsequent weeks of back-and-forth, committed to bring one to Burlington’s Spencer Smith Park. Even though that first festival, in 1995, was doused by rain and netted Rotarians just $850, “we still had people coming out, standing in line in the pouring rain, waiting for their ribs,” Mr. Peeling says. “That showed you there that something was right.”
“It became a war”
Canadian ribbing enjoyed a quiet first decade, but grew antsy in its teenage years, as more teams crammed into the Ontario circuit and increasingly costly border restrictions deterred Americans from entering the country. Competition got nasty: Ribbers began discreetly stuffing ballot boxes to rig audience-choice awards; some set their trophies in front of rival teams; others erected huge, confusing banners to mislead locals into thinking they’d won first place recently at any given festival. One owner alleges another took a pole to his rig and scratched it up. “All of a sudden, it became all about the money,” a senior ribber told me. “They were all doing it. It became a war.”
Something had to change. In early 2012, before the summer season kicked off, a dozen or so ribbers met in a hotel conference room and hashed out 10 rules for ribfest etiquette. “We sit down, we have a couple drinks two times a year, we decide what should we talk about,” says Mr. Gerl of Camp 31. “To stop the bullshit in the park.”
If Larry Murphy is the grandfather of ribs, Bernie Gerl is the godfather. A burly man of 50, Mr. Gerl has the large, calloused hands of someone who’s worked in restaurants all his life; at age 17, he took a loan from his family to buy his own pizza restaurant in Hamilton. He helped launch Camp 31’s Canadian location in Paris, Ont., in 1995, and inherited the role of ribbing ringleader after Mr. Murphy retired. He is the association’s first and only president, and has a financial stake in several association rib teams.
Together, these ribbers standardized banners and prices, and slapped restrictions on sauce sampling and trophy placements. They chose a president, a secretary, a board of directors and a name: the Ontario Ribbers’ Association.
Although it originated as the ribbers’ United Nations, it evolved into something resembling a union. Ribbers suddenly had leverage against rising vendor costs and organizers’ arbitrary rules, and threw their weight around against what they saw as unfair requests, such as too many free meals or price hikes. “There’s been threats, game-playing and stuff,” says Hugh Williams, Toronto Ribfest’s director. “It’s part of the business.”
Ribbers and Rotarians are hesitant to talk publicly about these issues, because both sides agree the association has helped smooth out more problems than it’s caused. In fact, several ribfest organizers say they will only bring in association members, because it makes selecting ribbers easier. Mr. Racicot, in Burlington, wants to go one step further and adopt a similar union among Rotary ribfest organizers. “My thinking is we should band together to leverage our brand,” he says, which would allow a streamlined avenue for sponsorship across all ribfests in Ontario.
These parallel monopolies – those in charge of festivals and ribbers – shed light on how this industry functions. It is based largely on history and loyalty, who you know rather than how well you rib. It has allowed for a comfortable status quo to thrive for two decades.
This has created a brick wall for entrepreneurs on both sides. “It is tough for a new guy to get in, no question about it,” Mr. Gerl says. “Is it a problem? I don’t think it’s a problem.” The association doesn’t guarantee anyone a spot in a festival. Instead, entrepreneurial ribbers can head farther out into the province, paving their own way if they need to, pollinating Ontario with more and more ribfests.
Which is exactly what they’re doing.
“This is the beginning”
Gus Sakellis, a newer association member, is one of the last upstart ribbers in Ontario. After starting Ribs Royale in 2006, he spent four years trying to break into the scene. “It was very difficult to get into ribfests,” he says. “There’s not much real estate to go around.” Festival organizers select ribbers based on history and loyalty – a brick wall for entrepreneurs.
So in 2010, Mr. Sakellis created his own opportunities. Instead of working a second job during the winter months (as done by certain ribbers, dubbed “weekend warriors” by full-timers), Mr. Sakellis toured rural Ontario, pitching ribfests to non-profits around Thunder Bay, Kemptville and Perth. “We were quite taken by surprise year one,” says Jim Comuzzi, who organizes Ribfest Thunder Bay with the city’s downtown BIA. They expected 12,000 people to show up; twice that many did.
John Kasias, who founded Railroad Ribs in 2010, is in a similar situation. Railroad is a small rig with few awards to its name; the first time he played London Ribfest, Mr. Kasias walked away in the red because of the several-thousand-dollar entry fee. The following year, on the same weekend, he worked an event that cost him only $1,000 to enter, and now frequents such non-ribfest events as Buskerfest in Toronto and Westfest in Ottawa. “I choose to see opportunity in all places,” he says.
Mr. Sakellis and Mr. Kasias are clever and intrepid business owners, just as Mr. Brown is; and, like Mr. Brown, they are helping expand rib culture exponentially, in pockets of Ontario that would otherwise lack the spectacle of live fire-grilled ribs. And yet the ribbers themselves have eschewed criticism of market saturation, while Mr. Brown has been bludgeoned with it.
“It’s a slap in the face to Justin,” says Rob Mise, the general manager of St. Thomas’s local radio station and a staunch supporter of Mr. Brown’s. “Here’s a guy who wants to go and start a business, employ people, get the economy going in these markets, too. Why should Welland go without a ribfest? Is that fair?”
Welland is perhaps Northern Heat’s most controversial market. It is 15 kilometres and three weeks apart from St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest, one of the oldest in Ontario. Wade Stayzer, who organizes the event, says he’s more worried about retaining local sponsors than he is about attendance, and “would love to see Justin focus on communities without ribfests.”
How communities are defined is precisely the problem. For many Rotarians, it is an area beyond city borders, mingling tourists with locals and turning dollars into donations. According to Mr. Brown’s side, a community is any municipality of ribfest have-nots who want an event to call their own.
There’s some precedent for blurry market definition. The Rotary Club of Cambridge kickstarted a ribfest 16 kilometres away from Kitchener’s ribfest, a for-profit event that had been running strong for a decade. Mr. Stayzer helped the Niagara Falls Rotary club set up its own ribfest 20 kilometres away from St. Catharines. “We don’t see it as a big deal,” Mr. Stayzer says, because seven weeks separate the two events and both raise money exclusively for charities.
The Rotary cannot avoid Northern Heat indefinitely; popular business models are destined for enterprise growth. Several Rotary ribfests, such as those in Burlington and Toronto, are expanding to include full-time salespeople and celebrity chefs. Ribbers are cultivating Western Canada, with the hopes that, 10 years from now, B.C. and Alberta will be as bloated with pork and ribs as Ontario is now.
Mr. Brown isn’t sure yet if he’ll add more cities next year, but even if he doesn’t, others surely will. Mr. Mise, at least, has faith. “This is the beginning,” he says. “This is only gonna get bigger, bigger and bigger. He’s not stopping.”
You walk into the park and see a dozen rigs. They’ve all got heaps of golden trophies and first-place banners. Old men with beer bellies and thick white beards are calling you over to every direction. How do you choose?
• Ignore the trophies. Everyone’s won trophies. Some ribbers won’t even display them, preferring to focus on the product and character of their teams. If you really care about awards, look to their banners and see who won the most recent first-place awards. (Even this will be fairly arbitrary.)
• Get sauced. Most teams, especially at big festivals, will send a staffer out to give out samples. Since every ribber buys meat from the same few sources, sauce is a key differentiator.
• Don’t follow the lines. Once ribbers have a few people waiting for food, they’ll slow down – this is called “building the line.” Consumers are more inclined to line up behind 50 people than they are to be first in line at a quiet rig, because they assume popularity denotes quality. It doesn’t – it just means staffers are working slower.
•None of them are American. Whether their names refer to the likes of Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida or Alabama, they’re all Canadian now. Brands may have originated down south, but they would have been bought by Canadians years ago. And those Southern accents, we’re sorry to say, are just part of the show.