Tuesday, August 19, 2008

So you think you want to be a barbeque vendor?

Well, so did we. However, Pellet Envy may have just set the land speed record for the shortest career in the history of barbeque vending. Honestly, I have very mixed feelings about folks who vend barbeque now. On one hand, I have a new found greater respect for them. Vending is some of the hardest work I've ever done. I know, I know to look at me you'd say I've probably never done a hard day's work in my life. I can see your point, but you'd be wrong. On the other hand and based on our experience, barbeque vendors are obviously absolutely stark raving mad. In my opinion, you'd be better off to go find a roulette table and plop all your money down on red or black. Oh sure, you all have stories of big pay days and home runs, but what you're not telling us are all of the seriously losing events you've suffered through, and I know there are plenty of those. But let's talk about our experience at Dillon, Colorado.

I'm just going to apologize right now for the length of this blog entry. I haven't even written it, but I've been composing it in my head for over a week. There is no short way to tell you about this experience and I really want you to get the full effect, so I'm about to break the golden rule of blog writing, and for that I am truly sorry.

With a change in our schedule, we decided to make the trip to the BBQ at the Summit event to compete. However, by the time we inquired, we learned the only spots left were for teams willing to vend. I totally disagree with this policy, but that's a different blog post. So, after talking with Sheri, we decided we'd try our hand at vending. I remember thinking, and probably saying, "after all, how hard could it be?" Oh, would I live to eat those words, (pun intended). We discussed whether we would vend just enough to be in the contest or give it our all. Obviously we decided to give vending our best effort, after all we thought if all went well, it could be a nice payday. We discussed that idea specifically. I mean, with our new Cookshack FEC-500, we were more than well equipped for something like this. So, several weeks before the event, the research into successful vending began. I asked everybody I encountered who had vended at Dillon, Frisco or anywhere and called friends from around the country who are serious, big time vendors. The thing that hurt my head was that everybody had a different answer or opinion. There was no consensus on the approach to vending. Had this not been about barbeque, it would have worried me a bit. But it was about barbeque and if you've ever ask a group of cooks about the best way to cook barbeque, you know there are as many answers as there are pit masters.

The mental preparation not withstanding, we began organizing and acquiring the stuff needed about 10 days out. With a very simple menu of ribs and burnt ends, with very limited quantities of our beans and cole slaw, we thought this would be easy. Our site was laid out on paper and a list of items that would make it happen was created. The most obvious, and the only thing we didn't already own, was a banner system. This should have been handled two weeks earlier as it was rushed. We went small, with a 10' x 10' system consisting of six banners. Luckily, Chris Stauffer at Grafik Kid and Wayne at Guerilla Banners were both wonderfully accommodating despite my procrastination. The fittings for the banner frame were not available locally so they had to be ordered online. Again, I found someone who went out of their way to help, finding Jean Ferguson at GV Tools & Tarps. If you need fittings for 1" EMT conduit or your canopy system, there is no better place and the prices are right. Thnx to Darren Warth and Tommy Houston for their advice on this.

With the banner system handled, we turned to the food and disposables. John Scavuzzo of Scavuzzo's Inc. recommended Seaboard Farms 2.5 and down St. Louis cut ribs. He stocks them frozen, so we reserved 16 cases. Mies Wholesale stocks cases of pre-trimmed brisket points from Colorado Premium. Because of the quantity desired, about 500 lbs. or eight cases, they had to be ordered. Multiple trips to Costco and Sam's Club were made to research the sides and different serving pieces that would work. Here's a great little trick, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of the items and prices so I wouldn't have to write it down, plus I could show Sheri what I'd found and it would help me with the budget. We learned that in Dillon, the folks are big on sampling instead of buying meals, so we stocked up on 2 oz. souffle cups and thin paper hot dog trays for single ribs. We also bought 2 lb. boats and divided 9" clam shells for dinners. We bought 1,200 forks and napkins as well. Oh, one last thing, I got online and ordered one thousand 12" wooden skewers so we could thread the burnt ends onto them and sell kabobs because we were told that these folks love to walk around with their food in one hand and a drink in the other.

We planned to leave early Thursday morning. The serious preparation began on the Monday prior. Tuesday afternoon I retrieved the FEC-500 from storage and picked up the points. They went on the pit at 10:00 pm that evening. If you've never seen a pit that size completely filled with points, it's a beautiful sight. Cooked low and slow, the points began coming off of the pit about 11:00 am on Wednesday. The beauty of these things is that you must cube them up, let them cool a bit and seal them up in 5 lb bags. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. I worked from 11:00 am until about 11:00 pm getting all of them processed. I didn't think about it until I was done, but I had just cooked and processed enough meat to serve 800 people. We loaded Sheri's truck, my truck and the trailer full of everything we needed then went in to pack. It was about 2:00 am Thursday morning when we went to bed, knowing we needed to be up at 6:00 am to leave by 7:00 am Thursday morning. With Sheri pulling the FEC-500 with her Yukon and me pulling the competition trailer, we got on the road about 7:30 am. Considering the day before, that felt like a small victory.

Other than having the trailer brakes lock up at the first stop in Salina, Kansas, which took a little thought, the trip was uneventful. We did hit rush hour in Denver, but it wasn't as bad as we thought it might be. We arrived in Dillon about 6:30 pm on Thursday evening, twelve hours after we had begun our trip. We found our condo and met up with Johnny & Trish Trigg to enjoy an awesome meal at the Blue Spruce in Frisco. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it. On a side note, I had forgotten how the thin air effected me when we cooked this event 2006. I remembered some great advice Brenda Cameron, then contest organizer, had given us about taking an aspirin. If the lack of oxygen effects you when you're in the mountains, I highly recommend it.

Friday morning came way too quickly. I found our contest site at 7:00 AM and walked over a couple blocks to check-in for the event. By then, the teams had taken over the streets of downtown Dillon. We were located on a side street, just off a town square of sorts, which was the main vending area. The up side was that it appeared that folks had to walk by us to get to that main area and we felt like it was a decent site considering we weren't in the square. One piece of great advice I received was to be ready to sell when the event began at 12:00 PM that day. We weren't. Sheri and our niece Shea arrived on site about 8:30 am, which was sooner than I expected. We positioned the competition trailer in a very un-level space and with the help of Johnny & Trish Trigg, moved the FEC-500 into place. I promptly got it set up and started it to warm up. Here is where I made my first mistake, which was forgetting that the altitude effects the speed at which your pit gets to temp. It took the cooker about two hours to reach 275 degrees, only an hour and forty minutes longer than normal. We had about twenty-four slabs of ribs and two pans of beans on by 10:30 am and continued to set up.

With the delayed start to our cooking, we were ready to serve by about 3:00 pm. Shea, our twelve year old niece took orders and tickets while Sheri filled orders and I cut ribs and refilled the burnt ends. During our delay, our banners had drawn some attention and we had to turn many people away because our food wasn't ready. We served until about 9:00 pm, which was much later than most of the other vendors. During the course of the day, we turned away a large number of folks because we couldn't keep up with our ribs and burnt ends. We would sell out as soon as each batch was ready. The burnt ends were a little tougher sell because they required some education. However, once they understood and tried them, they were hooked. Johnny and Trish came down about 7:00 PM on Friday and saw how busy we were and how tired we looked. They both jumped in to help out. Looking back, we were very glad to see them. The first day we sold about seventy slabs of ribs and 70 lbs. of burnt ends. We sold those original two pans of beans, but never had time to cook more and I think we only had one or two sales of our now famous Pennsylvania style cole slaw.

It took us about an hour to clean up. A storm was blowing in, so we basically dismantled the site. Sheri and Shea headed back to the condo and I turned what little focus I had left on the competition. Realizing the vending would be better the next day and having been on my feet for fifteen hours, I made a management decision. Because it was so late and our competition schedule and most of the recipes we use had been totally abandoned, I quickly trimmed and seasoned the briskets and butts and got them on one of the FEC-100's I had fired up about 8:00 PM. At that point, I cleared a spot in the trailer, unfolded the Lafuma and went to bed.

At 4:30 AM Saturday, it was time to fire up the big rotisserie. Shortly after getting it going, I began loading ribs onto the pit. I now know this pit is fully loaded with 105 slabs of ribs. All of them were on by 6:00 AM in hopes that they would be ready by 12:00 pm. With that task complete, I was able to again focus on the competition. My ribs were seasoned and put on the other FEC-100 and I was able to trim chicken with just enough time to season and get it on the pit according to my normal competition timing. About 9:00 AM Sheri and Shea arrived back at the site. We all worked to get the site set up for the day of vending. On Friday Shea had popped off that she would count our tickets from vending that day, so we put her to work counting and bundling tickets in the trailer. I don't think she had any idea just how many tickets we had and she got it done, but I think it was a little overwhelming for awhile.

Learning our lesson from the day before, we never ran out of food on Saturday. Except for the chicken turn-in, I worked alone during competition while Sheri, Shea and my mother-in-law Susan handled the vending. Mark Welte even loaned us his sister-in-law Jen who pinch hit for me for a couple hours and was really great help. Later Kent Romine, the Barton County Fair contest organizer and good friend, help us out by using his "big voice" when anybody ordered a full slab of ribs. The second day seemed so much longer. We sold out by 5:30 pm. Later we found four 5 lb. packages of burnt ends we had overlooked. We spent another two and a half at the site cleaning up, packing and counting our tickets. Shea had long since waived the white flag and headed off to dinner with her grandmother, Sheri's mom. We finally pulled out of our site about 8:00 pm.

So, how'd we do? This is where the rubber meets the road. We lost money. "How could you lose money", you say? It wasn't hard. I really started to get a bad feeling early in the week of the event. We had right at $5K in expenses. We knew that going in. We had 200 slabs of ribs and about 200 lbs. of burnt ends plus the beans and slaw. It's hard to calculate your sales when you don't know what the going rate will be at an event, but I had calculated a worst case and a best case. That's when I knew this was an uphill battle. Honestly, we were closer to the best case in terms of what we charged, but it just didn't work out for us. Here are some of the details:

On Friday, we charged $2 per bone for ribs, $6 for a three bone sampler, $14 for a half slab and $22 for a full slab of ribs. We charged $1 for a sample of burnt ends, which was three or four of them in a 2 oz. souffle cup, and $7 for a boat or kabob. By the way, the kabob idea didn't go over well. For one, it was very time consuming to thread the pieces of meat onto the skewers and secondly, it just didn't look like much meat when done that way. They boats were the better way to serve the them by far. When I wrote our prices on the chalkboard, I had listed the sides, beans and slaw, for $2. Sheri erased the "&" and replaced it with "or." So, I couldn't figure out why everybody was ordering just beans and no slaw. When we took our chalkboard down for the night, I discovered the change. On Saturday our prices changed. We charged $3 per bone, $7 for three bones, $12 for half a slab and the full slabs were the same price. We also upped the burnt ends sampler to $2 and left the sides at $2 each. Sounds like we should have made a killing right? It sure does until you break it down. We had $5,778 in sales for the two days. Of that, the event took 8% for sales tax and 20% for the "house." After the deductions, we stand to receive a check for about $4,200. Yeah, you read that right, the City of Dillon needs two weeks to process everything and mail us our money. Just to be clear about the expenses, here's the breakdown:

Ribs: $1,150 (16 cases, 30 lbs per case on average at $2.41 per lb.)
Points: $850 (460 pounds at $1.85)
Sides: $100
Fuel: $1,200 (two vehicles pulling two trailers)
Entry Fee: $235
Competition Meat: $150
Banner system: $400
Lodging: $450
Meals: $100 (Three people, four days - very cheap)
Supplies: $300 (Ice, rub, pellets, paper goods, disposable table decorations, sauce, etc.)

To be fair, we placed in two categories and received $340 in prize money. That amount should be included in our proceeds as the expenses were included. So, what's the moral of the story. Well, for us, it's that vending is just not our bag. We stand to take in approximately $4540 but spent in excess of $5K. We worked hard for several days, got other people involved, and have nothing to show for it. Oh, I need to thank Shea, Susan, Johnny, Trish, Jen, and Kent for helping us out as well. We could not have done it without you. If not the shortest, I'm sure we tied someone for the shortest career in the history of bbq vending. If you know anybody that would like a slightly used banner frame, send them our way. If you know anyone who is considering diving into vending, have them read this. I talked with a couple vendors at this event. They lost money too and I'm not totally sure they really understand how or why.

Final thoughts: A couple other things about vending at Dillon. We gave our neighbor, the electrician that helped us with a horrendous electrical problem we had on Saturday morning, and my mother-in-law each a slab of ribs. We also made deals on the ends of some of the slabs that just didn't have much meat and were a bit dry and over cooked. Also, for about the first six hours of vending, we refused the wooden nickles folks tried to hand us for the people's choice award. At check-in, I saw the buckets for those, but they didn't offer me one so I assumed we weren't part of that. So many people offered us their nickles that I finally told Sheri and Shea it would be easier to just accept them. We finished fifth in the people's choice award. That was pretty cool. Finally, I just don't see how anyone can make money when the event skims 28% off the top and the vendors don't put their heads together and set the prices accordingly. We were easily equal to or higher in price than every other vendor there. If we had planned a little better and been all business for two days, we might have made $400 - $500 net. If we had not come from Kansas City, we probably could have cut that fuel cost significantly. But honestly folks, we had so much more time and effort into vending, even that would not have been enough to make us successful in my opinion. Something other than ribs might have improved our margins, but at a barbecue contest I believe people want barbecue. All in all, it was a great learning experience. One that I hope to never repeat.

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