Young and Hungry

What Did Your $10 Ticket Get You at the Safeway Barbecue Battle?

It's no secret that I love barbecue. It's the result of living in two regions — Kansas City and Texas — with celebrated 'cue cultures. To say I was excited about visiting the Safeway Barbecue Battle on Sunday would be an understatement.

The organizers of the event sent me two tickets in the mail. Had I paid for them, like almost everyone else at this outdoor meat fest, they would have cost me $10 each. I used one and went solo to the massive event, which stretched five blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue NW. I didn't bring much money with me and, since I had lost my check card recently, didn't have access to any cash from the portable ATMs on site.

I almost starved to death.

I have to admit that I was startled by the fact that my ticket got me next to nothing to eat. I had, perhaps foolishly, expected that the contestants in the barbecue battle would be, at the very least, offering samples to the public. That was not the case — at least when I was there on Sunday afternoon. Most of the samples available were products that Safeway, the sponsor, was pimping.

Regardless, I decided early on that I was not going to pay Famous Dave's or Old Glory any money for their crappy barbecue. I was going to eat freebies only — or I wasn't going to eat at all. I wasn't here for the music, after all. I was here to eat.

Here's what I ate:

  1. A sample of Rancher's Reserve flatiron steak (Safeway tie-in)
  2. A sample of dry-rubbed pork loin (Safeway tie-in)
  3. A piece of bread slathered in Stubb's barbecue sauce
  4. A two-bite chopped brisket sandwich and two slivers of sausage, courtesy of Stubb's Feed the World campaign (nice peppery kick in the sausage)
  5. A small plastic cup of diced watermelon (not much sweetness)
  6. A small plastic cup of Gold Peak lemon-flavored tea (very sweet)
  7. A piece of bread dusted with Todd's Dirt (which tastes of oregano and garlic and something sweet)
  8. A sample of the "orange whirl" SunnyD smoothie (which tastes like a liquid orange creamsicle)
  9. A Luna bar with lemon zest
  10. A small bag of sliced red apples

I opted not to stand in the long, long cattle line at the Safeway Sampling Pavilion. I had no desire to wait 30 minutes for a bite of Perdue chicken, Oscar Mayer weiners, or Lay's potato chips.

So by the time I left the event, I had eaten exactly one small sample of barbecue, thanks to Stubb's generosity. I'm sorry but Luna bars and sliced apples do not make a barbecue battle.

  • DanielK

    A little Google or donrockwell search ahead of time would have told you that BBQ battles never provide any competing BBQ to the general public. Sorry.

    Next time, work in advance to get certified as a judge, and go that route.

  • Bloomingdale Resident

    I think for $10, it would have been nice to receive samples from the BBQ contestants. Although DanielK is correct, it's not cool. What is the problem with allowing the public to sample the goods and cast their votes? Essentially, the public paid to sample Safeway products on toothpicks.

  • Streyeder

    I agree w/ Daniel. The larger teams recoup some of their expenses by selling their 'Q. The best philosophy to take at a BBQ event is to grab some food from a short line and then find the longest line at the event and get in it. I've waited 3+ hours at the DC event for some of the best damn ribs I've ever eaten...and it was worth every second.

  • DC foodie with changing name

    Or you do the smart thing and raise the price of the ticket to $20-30, use the extra costs to give everyone 2-3 full serving tickets (or 4-5 half servings) letting people come away from the BBQ competition fully satisfied and not grumbly.

    If they want more they can buy more tickets and eat more food. 30% wouldnt use all of their tickets so there would be some upside and everyone breaks even.

    I totally agree with Tim's perspective on this one. Tasting festivals, pre-paid New Years events/parties, etc don't give away stuff for free but oftentimes they build the cost of meeting food/drink expectations into the product.

  • Lou

    When I saw all the Safeway sponsorships and associated tie-in's, I went, "ehhhhhhh...nah."

  • Mony

    Exactly DanielK, I'm pretty shocked that Carman didn't realize this, it wasn't hidden information or anything. But I also agree that it would make sense to raise the price to $20 or $30 to allow tasting tickets.

  • Tim Carman

    I must admit, I'm playing dumb here for effect. I know that non-health department certified kitchens (like BBQ contestants with their portable smokers) can't sell to the public -- and that barbecue is one of the most expensive foods to produce. You can't expect to put together a festival of this size, with all the musical acts and overhead, and then just give away barbecue for a $10 ticket. But still, I wanted to write this from a consumer's point of view. I'd like to see a solution close to the one "DC foodie with the changing name" suggests: raise the price and import some serious professional barbecue producers to work the festival -- pitmasters from KC, NC, Texas and have their portable kitchens inspected so they could offer their food. The 'cue would be factored into the price of the ticket.

  • Joe Hoya

    I could be wrong on this, but I think I was told at one point that competitors are prohibited from offering free samples because of liability issues at the Safeway event.

    Not sure if it's a city ordinance or a rule of the contest organizer, but any competition team that also wants to make its food available to the public needs to register as a vendor (and I'm pretty sure there's an added cost to that) and sell it. That's what Old Glory does - and even then the 'cue they sell is different than the stuff they turn in for judging.

  • Q

    Thanks Tim, you saved me $20 and quelled my curiousity. When they had the Taste of DC events (few and far between) things were handled differently. For starters, they made the concessions similar to carnival rides where everyone had to provide tickets as such. There were cash things to buy (T-shirts, etc.) but for the most part, the vendors gave samples per ticket. Doing it that way benefitted folks in a number of ways. For starters, they did not have to corral folks for entry. You could walk in the event at several places and not get harrassed. They had a "ticket" concession stand that you could purchase tickets. Most samples/meals costed 2 tickets, but it was worth it. Anyways, it was fun for all.

    In order for food festivals to be profitable, there has to be a balance of activity, foot traffic, and good food. Sounds like your experience didn't give you either.

  • FU Safeway

    This was not a BBQ battle but an extended commercial. I asked the competitors why they weren't selling and they are required to be inspected by DC Dept of Health if they are going to vend (and they wanted to)...

    FU Safeway. You stole $22 dollars from me on your false advertising.

    The Ribs that were available for sale were disgusting, even to the point of failing to have removed the apron from the back of the ribs. Seasoning salt a BBQ rub is not.

    Massive fail and I will not be back in the future.

  • DC foodie with changing name

    Note that we have plenty of smaller-scale, community-organized events where tastings happen and the health department somehow certifies those.

    Think Taste of Georgetown (if that is the right name?), Greek festival, Turkish festival, the farmers market cooking demonstrations, all of the farmers market food stalls, food stands on the mall, etc.

    It is possible and can be done. And with a massive, seemingly-organized sponsor like Safeway I bet they could easily pull the strings to have inspection and certification. Plus, the extra costs of tickets could cover that.

  • Ben

    As someone who has sold food at the BBQ battle before, it is ridiculously expensive to purchase a vendor space, which is why most of the spaces were big companies who wanted to advertise. A health inspection essentially certifies that you have handwashing facilites and a wash/rinse/sanitize setup for utensils, both of which are very easy to put together, and I don't remember exactly but it may have cost me $30, which is pretty standard for these sort of events. Propane usage is an additional charge, but not outlandish. Either way you slice it if you didn't want to look at the Kia or shoot hoops you were left wanting.

  • Becky

    I'm really sick of elitists judging family events like the Barbecue Battle just because you think you're hipper than the rest of the universe.
    Did it ever occur to you that a number of families can't afford $20-$30 dollar tickets, and are willing to wait in line for enough free samples to fill them up? Some of the sample lines I saw we're not that long-and I did see large numbers of people enjoying the music, cooking demonstrations, info booths, etc. I'm a single parent with two kids-and my kids and I had a blast at the event.
    And Q, think about why there are no Taste of DC events anymore-you could use your own quote to figure out why they failed:
    In order for food festivals to be profitable, there has to be a balance of activity, foot traffic, and good food. Taste of DC didn't have that balance.
    Sponsorships are necessary in this day and age to defray the cost of putting on an event.And the BBQ battle has raised over one million dollars for the Boys and Girls clubs.

  • hurricanewarningdc

    We did one of the bbq events on Penn Ave a few years ago and had the same reaction. You mean we pay to get in and then have to pay to eat from restaurants that we could choose any day locally? Or just eat funnel cakes, etc, out of pocket? You mean you don't tell anyone that in the promotional materials or as they come in the gate? We commented to an event sponsor on the way out that the advertising was deceptive for that reason, and the guy gave us a dirty look, insisting that we were there to donate to charity and not to eat the food. We've never gone to another...

  • Shay

    The 10 buck fee is worth itif you partake of all of the things offered and goes towards the Boys and Girls club.

    I personally enjoy the wonderful music and if you are there towards the end, most of the vendors cut their prices in half or by more than half. I got a full rack of ribs for 8 bucks. I think its a great event and gives me something relatively inexpensive to do for the day.'s cheaper than the movies and I am helping a greater cause :)