Small town, big barbecue, large economic impact

Published 9:16 pm Monday, June 15, 2015

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The Blue Ridge Barbecue & Music Festival organizers aim to create affordable entertainment and have now been successful for 22 years. Taking place on Harmon Field in Tryon, all proceeds of the festival benefit the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce.

The two-day festival continues to grow year to year. In 2014, the festival saw an estimated 5,400 attendees on Friday alone. This Friday drew 6,550, an 18 percent increase. Friday is the slow day, in comparison to Saturday, where attendance is more than doubled.

The biggest event of the year comes with a year’s worth of planning. The board will take a break to assess this year’s outcome, and then begin planning the 2016 barbecue festival in August.

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In 2010, the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce commissioned a company to survey the festival. Basic questions were asked of attendees and a rating was given based on the responses. The Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival was given a 9.5 on a scale of 10, the highest rating they have ever given, according to Janet Sciacca, Foothills Chamber’s Executive Director.

The festival’s high rating makes finding sponsors and entertainment a breeze.

“We definitely see repeat sponsors,” said Sciacca. “They come back because they’re happy, but we get new sponsors every year, too.”

While the number of attendees continues to rise, the number of vendors does not. This is by design.

“We don’t like to have a lot of overlap,” said Festival Chairman Mike Karaman. “We want people to come in here and have a niche and be able to do a good job.”

The event brings a crowd of 25,000 from all over the East Coast, and as far west as Texas. Just one quarter of this year’s 80 competition teams were based in North Carolina.

The economic impact on Polk County is estimated at over $1,000,000 throughout the other 363 days of the year from return visitors to the area.

Outstanding draw power is understandable when the festival is regularly being ranked in the top 10 out of the nation’s 400 annual barbecue festivals.

“Out of those 10, we’re the only one not in a big market,” said In-Field Vendor Chairman Erik McKaig.

“It’s because of where it is,” Sciacca explained. “We’re not in a mall parking lot.”

Despite being in a market where the county’s population is doubled over the course of the weekend, the festival has placed Polk County on the national radar several times. The Blue Ridge Barbecue & Music Festival appeared in publications such as Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, National Geographic, USA Today and the New York Times.

“This is the competition that cookers want to come to,” said Sciacca. ”If you can do well in Tryon, you’re good.”

An army of 400 volunteers makes the festival possible. In fact, it is completely powered by volunteers.

“Nobody is getting paid to do this,” said Sciacca. “We just do it because we love it, and that’s so awesome.”

The festival has stayed consistent over time. This includes barbecue vendors and competition cookers such as the Texas Rib Rangers, who have been making the trip for 21 of the festival’s 22 years.

The festival’s organizers have created a working formula that has a community of supporters to bring it to fruition.

“This community is amazing. We couldn’t do it without them,” said Sciacca.