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American Royal World Series of Barbecue

15 Jul, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Kim Palmer, Chief Marketing Officer

www.americanroyal.com/bbq

The American Royal World Series of Barbecue is the largest barbecue competition in the world, attracting teams from across the United States and internationally to compete for the title of Grand Champion. The 2021 World Series of Barbecue will be held September 16-19, 2021 at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas.

The World Series of Barbecue Open Competition is available to any team who can come down and show off their best barbecue skills. Teams compete in Chicken, Pork Ribs, Pork (shoulder or Boston Butt) and Beef Brisket. In order to be eligible for Grand Champion, Open teams must turn in for all four categories.

Additionally, teams can compete in each category alone, a Sausage category, Sides and/or Desserts, and there is a Kids’ Que competition as well.

In the spring, there is a Rub Competition and a Sauce Competition, both of which are held in May, with various disciplines in each category. So without further ado, let's MEAT the American Royal.

Sports Destination Management: How long has the competition been around?

Kim Palmer: We are going into our 41st year; our organization, American Royal, is 122 years young. We are a not-for-profit that has been based in Kansas City since 1899. We provide opportunities to educate youth about the agricultural industry. Most people think agriculture is the farmer in the field or the person raising cattle but there is so much more to agriculture than that.

It’s our mission to help educate kids about where their food comes from, where their clothes come from – we want them to learn about all aspects of agriculture and the way it affects their lives. Giving out scholarships in agricultural-related education is a huge part of our mission. We’ve given out over $1 million annually in scholarships and educational opportunities, and the recipients go on to have careers as veterinarians, as professionals in the textile industries, leather production, fish products, food stylists and others. 

So 41 years ago, we had this idea for a fund raiser – why don’t we do a barbecue contest? That first year, we had twenty-some contestants and we held it in the parking lot I can see from my office. Now, not only has this become the largest barbecue competition in the world but it brings in people from across the country and internationally. It also brings in a lot of tourism; people come to watch cooking demos, listen to live music and of course find out who the winners are.

SDM: Are people competing in teams or as individuals?

Palmer: They are competing as teams – you have some teams made up of two dudes but you also have some teams that six, eight, ten or twelve people on them. We have some teams that have been coming back for over 30 years. The mood is really great – people consider this event a true family reunion of barbecue enthusiasts. We had more than 450 teams participate in 2019 and this year, our team counts are even higher. It’s obvious people are itching to get back out there. Once you’ve caught the barbecue fever, you can’t let it go.

SDM: Any idea about the attendance or the economic impact?

Palmer: This is one of Kansas City’s largest events outside of traditional sporting events, with over 60,000 people attending. We know the economic impact is substantial; people are shopping in stores to buy the things they need to cook, they’re eating in restaurants – even barbecue people need a break from eating barbecue sometimes – and of course, all the people who come to see the competition need some place to eat as well. They are also staying in hotels or on campsites; a lot of contestants prefer to have their campsite near their cooking areas. We also offer the world’s largest purse in barbecue, $120,000, which is made possible by our sponsors and supporters.

SDM: So it’s not just bragging rights?

Palmer: It’s those too but there have also been careers that have been launched and businesses that have been created because of this contest.

SDM: It sounds like the pandemic didn’t hurt the number of contestants.

Palmer: No –in fact, if there is a silver lining at all, it is that the pandemic gave people a chance to practice. You also had a lot of people getting into backyard barbecuing and really enjoying it and as a result, we’re anticipating a lot of first-timers this year.

SDM: What is everyone responsible for bringing?

Palmer: Everyone brings in all their own equipment and all their own protein. There’s a meat inspection before they start cooking so that we can make sure the meat hasn’t been tampered with or injected with anything. We have judges that fly in to take part. Everything is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society – KCBS is the largest sanctioning body and it was an idea that originated as a result of the American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

We’re also home to the Barbecue Hall of Fame and we hold the induction ceremony in May of each year, recognizing people who made barbecue what it is today – we get to honor not only competitive teams but people who own restaurants, people who have written books and so on.

SDM: You also mentioned you do a children’s competition.

Palmer: Yes, we have our Kids’ Que during the World Series in September. There are two age categories and competitions: For ages 6-10, we have a burger competition, and for older kids, ages 11-16, we offer a steak competition. We limit it to 75 kids and in this case, they don’t bring their own grills; we supply Weber Smoky Joes and we have a lot of social distancing between each grill because, obviously, they’re kids and these are hot grills and kids like to run around.

SDM: Can parents come?

Palmer: Parents can come watch them but they can’t help them.

SDM: You’ve obviously outgrown the parking lot where the competition was born.

Palmer: Yes, now, we work with our partners at Kansas Speedway, who have made it possible for us to host the event inside the oval. We have a total of 65 acres to work with and right now, we’re spreading out over 30 or 40 acres and we still have room to grow.

We give each team a minimum amount of square footage and they can expand beyond that if they need to; we don’t want to pack them in like sardines because everyone has at least one smoker going if not two, and outside of that, you have live music, cooking demos on the stage and a lot going on. The smoke over the speedway is incredible and the smell is just amazing.

SDM: Do you worry about the weather?

Palmer: Well, it’s held in the middle of September so you stand to get a little bit of everything, weather-wise.

SDM: What kind of safety precautions are in place?

Palmer: All barbecue teams are required to keep a fire extinguisher at their cook site and we have the fire department onsite.

SDM: Despite the fact that you have people coming from all over the world, barbecue really is a quintessentially American food.

Palmer: It is. You think back in history to when people were cooking over a fire and you really had to eat what was in front of you if you wanted to survive. Maybe you had meat you didn’t like – opossum or raccoon or something, so you learned how to season meat and make it tender. That was really the beginning and it gave us this great world of barbecue – we took something that was not really edible or usable and we found a purpose for it. How American is that?

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