In 1995, staff and delegates from the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce were preparing for Panhandle Days in Austin, our annual visit to the state capitol to lobby for issues that are important to Amarilloís citizens. We figured a great way to get the attention of legislators was by cooking them some tasty Texas barbecue on the capitol grounds, so we had a cook-off to help us decide who would get the honor of feeding the crowd. We invited five barbecue restaurants and a judge to pick the winner.
From that little-noticed cook-out in the chamber parking lot, a huge barbecue dream was born, and itís still going strong 17 years later.
The Amarillo Chamber of Commerce Good Times Celebration Barbecue Cook-Off is held each September on and near the chamberís office property in downtown Amarillo. Itís our largest of four non-dues revenue events, representing six figures of revenue. These events help the chamber keep fees down, and contribute to the fact that member dues have not been raised in more than 25 years. But aside from the revenue, thereís incalculable value in uniting the community at a party with live music where thousands of people have a lot of fun cooking, eating, drinking, networking and promoting their businesses.
The year after our parking lot cooking contest, we opened the competition to all chamber members who wanted to showcase their grilling skills, which are considerable throughout the Lone Star state whether youíre a barbecue professional or not. We believed a larger event would provide members an appetizing opportunity to brag about their businesses to the community and to serve up tasty food dripping in sauce. We were right. After 16 events, our cook-off now attracts more than 100 cooking teams and 5,000 attendees.
Of course, successful events like this donít just happen after you plant the seed. They require countless hours of manpower, organization, volunteers, sponsors, creativity and energy. Here are some key things that have allowed us to grow our barbecue cook-off to one of the most successful events in the area.
The Good Times Celebration Barbecue Cook-Off takes place on the second Thursday of September and is open to the public from 5-8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the gate. The ticket price includes all you can eat and drink, plus live entertainment. We have one ticket price no matter what the age of the attendee, a reminder to the public that this is a business networking event and not a carnival-like situation for families and young children. There are more than 100 hot cookers and grills, large crowds and some alcohol served, so the event isnít a good fit for strollers and small children. We donít tell people not to bring children, but our pricing policy helps limit the number, and it simplifies our accounting. We can easily determine the number of presale tickets and onsite sales. We use a local company (PanhandleTickets.com) to pre-sell tickets in nine local locations and online. Panhandle Tickets is listed as a sponsor because we arenít charged for their services. We started this method of ticket sales a few years ago; itís taken stress off our staff and phone lines to outsource the processing of more than 3,000 pre-event tickets.
Each cooking team pays a minimum $200 entry fee to participate in the event and to hold their cooking space, but the vast majority of the teams are at least $500 sponsors. Each team agrees to prepare enough food for at least 200 people, in addition to cooking the meat donated to each team by our main sponsor, Tyson Foods, Inc.
Cooking teams set up on Wednesday morning and cook for a private party Wednesday evening called ďTeam Night,Ē which is invitation-only to allow participants to cook for their employees and families. There is a large time commitment for teams to participate. Team Night allows them to relax and give back to their employees.
Thursday is all about serving the public and preparing entries to be judged. We award top three plaques in Corporate, Amateur & Professional divisions for Ribs, Brisket and Other Meat categories. We have more than 100 volunteer judges who score each entry, and a committee that tabulates the scores to determine winners. Itís a blind judging system; each entry is identified only by a ticket number. The winning ticket numbers are announced during the event on the main stage at 7 p.m. for the public to share the excitement of the winners. We also award the top three places for showmanship, and encourage teams to decorate their cooking spaces or have themes for their team. We give a total of 30 awards. Youíll notice throughout our community previous winnersí plaques displayed in their businesses.
Without a doubt, our chamber could not produce this event without many generous sponsors. We are fortunate to have several big businesses in Amarillo that make it a point to give back to the community. The most critical part of our event is the barbecue itself: the meat. And whatís a barbecue without something to wash it down?
Tyson Foods, Inc. and Great Western Distributing have supported us since the first event by generously donating meat and beer. Those items are critical for our bottom line, and the sheer volume provided to us is staggering. At our 2011 event, Tyson provided 6,800 pounds of ribs and 9,500 pounds of brisketómore than eight tons of meatófor our cooking teams to prepare and serve. Tyson employs more than 3,700 people in Amarillo.
Great Western Distributing is our local Coors distributor, and in 2011 served 36 kegs and 350 cases of 12-ounce cans of their products. Two other local beer distributors and a liquor wholesaler provided additional beverages. In total, the equivalent of 28,000 beers was served along with nearly 3,000 non-alcoholic beverages provided by our local Coca-Cola distributor. Meat and beverages have to be kept cold for health reasons, and our local Arctic Glacier Premium Ice distributor provided a refrigerated semi for storage, as well as 50,000 pounds of ice for the event.
Live bands perform on stage for the crowds on Wednesday and Thursday. The two bands are listed as sponsors and given tickets for each member and guest to attend both nightsí events. We donít pay for entertainment because the bands get great exposure playing for several thousand people. A local radio station covers the expense of the sound system setup in exchange for sponsorship.
Other key components of an event of this magnitude include waste removal, security, printing, advertising, staffing, tables and chairs, forklifts and gators, paper goods, electricity, fencing and more. We are fortunate to get sponsorships for most of these things, and in 2011, we had an estimated $80,000 of in-kind sponsorships for these services. The bottom line: the less we have to pay for out of our budget, the more money we raise to offset basic operating costs of the chamber.
When planning our event, we start with a list of items we need and call upon our members to ask if they would sponsor the event. We have a number of cooking teams whose sponsorships come in the form of money, but large amounts are in-kind donations of goods or services. Sponsor levels are $500, $750, $1,500 and higher for key sponsors. We offer different sponsorship benefits based on the value of the contribution. All sponsors of $500 or more are listed on the promotional materials including posters, website, sponsor signage and newsletters. The key sponsors (Tyson, Coors and Arctic Ice) are listed prominently on those items, as well as on event tickets. Each sponsor also gets a set number of tickets/wristbands for their team, staff and guests to attend the Wednesday and Thursday night events. The bigger the sponsor, the more event tickets they get. The main thing to note about our sponsor benefits is that it doesnít cost the chamber to reward those sponsors with event tickets and publicity. For example, a $1,500 sponsor gets 30 tickets to the Thursday event, a value of $900, in addition to the 20 tickets to the private Wednesday Team Night event. Teams see value in their sponsorship and we get needed funds or services. Itís a win-win.
We created a 30-second commercial (http://goo.gl/ZyoDh) which all of the local TV stations and cable providers ran for free as a sponsorship trade before the event. A similar audio commercial was run on local radio stations for free. The week of the event, I and other staff members do radio and morning TV program spots to promote the event. We give the radio stations tickets to give away to their callers. The cook-off has become something of an annual tradition, with the whole town getting behind an event they anticipate and enjoy.
For this event, itís ďall hands on deckĒ for our 18 full-time chamber employees. Most of the logistics and prep-work is handled months in advance by a team of four staff members, but the entire staff works sunup to sundown for the three days of the cook-off. Staff is primarily responsible for working the four entrance gates and handling ticket sales and money. We use a temporary staffing service, SOS Staffing, to assist at the entrance gates, but their work is donated as a sponsorship. Alongside the staff are more than 120 volunteers who take tickets, put on armbands, deliver ice and serve beer at the nine beverage stations. Weíve never had a problem getting people to volunteer for this event, mainly because they get to eat, drink and have fun in exchange for working a 1Ĺ hour shift. Volunteers also are invited to the Wednesday Team Night so they can pick up the instructions and volunteer badges they will need on Thursday. They get to relax and enjoy Wednesday as a reward for their work on Thursday. Many of our volunteers come from various boards, councils and committees that serve the chamber throughout the year. Our staff also recruits family and friends to volunteer. We joke that our volunteers are literally ďworking for BBQ.Ē
We have a community service agreement with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which provides 12-15 trustees from the local prison and five armed guards who oversee them in setting up fencing, staging, electrical lines, tables and chairs, as well as post-event clean-up. The trustees are non-violent offenders on good behavior lists, and work only when the event is not open to the general public. They come late Tuesday evening to install electrical lines and power boxes, and return Wednesday morning to set up more than 1,700 feet of chain-link fencing, hang sponsor banners, erect the stage, and distribute meat and ice to cooking teams. They return late Thursday evening to tear down fencing and staging, load tables and chairs, remove trash and sweep the streets and parking lots. We reward their efforts with breakfast and lunch each day and barbecue after the event is over. Local restaurants and other cooking teams generously donate food to feed these workers. In the early years of the cook-off, chamber staff worked until the wee hours picking up beer cans and rib bones, so using offenders has gone a long way in keeping staff happy.
The chamber works very closely with the city health department. We follow their rules and guidelines for food safety. We have a mandatory head cooksí meeting about two weeks prior to the cook-off. One team member is required to attend that meeting to get updates and rule changes from us and the health department. We shot a video of this meeting (http://goo.gl/XcDkB) last year and sent the link to all the cooking teams so they could share it with team members. Two years ago we recruited 6-8 volunteer food and beverage inspectors who visit all the cooking teams on Wednesday and Thursday to reinforce rules and safe handling tips for food so that we donít get any citations from the health department. Teams know that failure to follow the rules will get them kicked out and not allowed to return in the future.
Not everything related to the cook-off is free. In addition to our paid chamber staff, we hire 20 police officers during the event and five security guards that stay on the grounds overnight Tuesday and Wednesday to patrol while the teams spend the night cooking. We also pay for trash removal staff during the event. We rent more than 50 port-a-potties and pay for 1,700 feet of fencing to secure the area.
The Amarillo Chamber is honored to have had its cook-off emulated by at least two other Texas chambers: Lubbock and Odessa. Lubbock recently held its 10th annual event. Staff and board members from the Odessa Chamber attended our 2010 barbecue to learn what was involved with planning a cook-off. In 2011, two Odessa staff members got hands-on experience by working gates and assisting our staff for two full days. They were exhausted when it was over, but better prepared for their first event held in October with 15 cooking teams. We sent two staff members and two volunteers to assist and cheer them on last fall. With positive feedback from their community, Odessa is planning a second event which they expect will continue to grow in the coming years.
Penni Bentley is senior director of chamber communications and website manager for the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce. For more information on this and other non-dues revenue events, contact her at (806) 373-7800.
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