When natural disaster strikes, Operation BBQ Relief is seldom far behind, serving up pulled pork or grilled hotdogs and hamburgers to first responders and devastated community members.
The Kansas City-based grassroots disaster relief organization was born after an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo. Since 2011, OBR as served nearly 1.7 million meals, including 371,760 over 11 days after Hurricane Harvey and 126,400 in nine days after Hurricane Irma.
“We’re still working on Puerto Rico because every route we went to for help came up short,” says a frustrated Stan Hays, OBR’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Going to an island is a lot harder than people think. In the past, we’ve always been able to get in there and make a difference. This is the first one we weren’t there within 48 to 72 hours.”
For OBR’s Herculean efforts, Hays has landed in the spotlight as a 2017 CNN Hero: “When Disaster Strikes, They Bring the Barbecue,” appeared on CNN’s website last week, along with this video.
Next month, Hays will find out if he is chosen by CNN to be in this year’s Top 10. If he is, then people can vote online for who they think should be the winner.
The winner, announced during CNN’s December awards show hosted by Anderson Cooper, is eligible to win up to $100,000. At a cost of roughly $3 a meal, such a hefty donation could fund a lot of barbecue: “That could be a game changer for us,” Hays says.
He credits his extended “barbecue family” for a job well done. In the wake of tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods and explosions, five logistics specialists have deployed 6,278 volunteers to 23 states.
“I’m the figurehead,” he says. “The volunteers are the heroes.”
When he’s not leading a disaster team, Hays, who lives in Pleasant Hill, Mo., works full time for Farmers Insurance. He attended his first barbecue competition in Lee’s Summit at the prompting of his wife, Amy. He’s pitmaster of County Line Smokers, a team that includes Amy and children Nathan, 14, and Anna, 11.
Nathan is already following in his father’s barbecue footsteps. He recently won the Food Network’s Kid Chef Nation and was the youngest person to ever win a Steak Cookoff Association competition. He was featured in The Star’s Come Into My Kitchen column earlier this year.
OBR’s hot meals are, by design, a quick fix. The volunteers swoop in while community members are reeling from grief and loss. Once restaurants, churches and other feeding organizations start to re-open, OBR moves out to let the community begin the work of healing.
While OBR is on a deployment, everybody is expected to pitch in where needed. Prize-winning pitmasters and anonymous backyard barbecuers cook together on Ole Hickory Pits EL/ED-X wood-burning smokers manufactured in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
The pits cook 80-85 pork shoulders at a time. So far, OBR has served up 707,764 pounds of pork shoulder. But sometimes the job calls for reheating 67,945 food service cans of vegetables.
“I’ve had a world champion barbecue pitmaster heating up vegetables and never touching a piece of meat … that’s probably the most ironic thing,” Hays says. “We have pitmasters out there slinging hotdogs on the grill to get people fed. It’s been very humbling to have people like that pitch in.”