Eat & Drink

Could Kansas City better promote itself as barbecue king?

A traveling exhibit of the state’s best pitmasters is part of the “Year of Alabama Barbecue.”
A traveling exhibit of the state’s best pitmasters is part of the “Year of Alabama Barbecue.” jsilva@kcstar.com

The Alabama Tourism Department has declared 2015 “The Year of Alabama Barbecue.”

Audacious? Braggadocious? Or smart marketing?

“We knew people were passionate about food, but when it comes to barbecue, it’s fighting words passionate,” says Luckie & Co.’s Bill Dinan.

[Jill Silva checks out Memphis in May.]

[American Royal vs. Memphis in May]

It’s not the state’s first slick, food-centric promotion produced by the Birmingham-based marketing agency. But it has been one of the most successful. Luckie helped create a “Barbecue Battle” to rank the state’s best barbecue by category: legends, multi-locations, mom ’n’ pops, rookies and dives, as well as a promotion for 100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die.

The promotion includes a museum-quality photo exhibit of larger-than-life-size black-and-white photos of the state’s most famous pitmasters, a hardback book, an hourlong “Q” documentary that is debuting at film festivals and an interactive app of barbecue pit stops across the state.

The photo exhibit will be free to the public at the American Royal barbecue contest this weekend. Meanwhile, previews of the hourlong “Q” documentary can be seen via alabama.bbq.com. Eventually, it is scheduled for broadcast on PBS affiliates.

But why flaunt Alabama barbecue at a Kansas City contest?

“Kansas City is the king of barbecue towns,” says Dinan, who took the exhibit on a five-city tour, stopping in Kansas City, Memphis, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and New Orleans. “It’s kind of like if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Food tourism is growing nationwide, and barbecue accounts for a large chunk of Kansas City’s tourism promotion dollars. “Barbecue is obviously one of the main things we promote in KC,” says Derek Klaus, senior communications manager with VisitKC.com.

At the end of July, a Kansas City barbecue promotional video went up on the VisitKC website. It’s part of a series of 2- to 3-minute videos on a growing array of food themes, including craft beer, pizza, coffee culture, cocktails and the local farm-to-table eateries.

Local production company KJO Media jumped at the chance to tell the city’s barbecue story. “We snatched it up because when you think of Kansas City, you think of jazz and barbecue,” says Ryan Unruh, the production company’s creative director.

“Kansas City could do more to market its barbecue,” says Karen Adler, Kansas City-based publisher of Pig Out Publications, which distributes grilling and barbecue cookbooks. She was recently featured in Thrillist’s “12 of the Most Important Women in BBQ.”

But part of the difficulty in getting the word out about Kansas City barbecue restaurants is that it’s hard to see them all because of urban sprawl, which is “less picturesque” than traveling through small towns in Alabama or meandering from Austin through Texas Hill Country, Adler says.

“It would be wonderful if someone could have a barbecue tour and take people through Kansas City,” she says. “Maybe the people to make that happen are our barbecue restaurants.”

“I’ve always believed those best at what they do engage in the least promotion,” says Ardie Davis, a cookbook author who specializes in barbecue titles and the founder of the original barbecue sauce competition at the American Royal.

“Maybe that’s how we feel in Kansas City. We know we’re great so why advertise? But when you look at (a recent) list (rating the best ribs across the country), you know the reason. That whole list should be Kansas City.”

If you go to the American Royal’s World Series of Barbecue

What: The largest barbecue contest in the world. The event brings together world-renowned pitmasters and backyard barbecue enthusiasts for open and invitational contests.

When: Contestants arrive Thursday; public events are Friday and Saturday.

Where: Arrowhead Stadium

Cost: There are several ticket options available at americanroyal.com.

Single day tickets are $15, weekend tickets are $25. Children ages 6 to 12 are $5 for Saturday; 5 and under are free both days.

VIP pit tickets are $75, including gate admission, access to the stage and all-inclusive food and beverage.

A family four-pack of tickets for $20 is good 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

Parking: A day pass is $20

Beyond barbecue: Public festivities surrounding the barbecue contest include these Saturday events:

10 a.m. Parade at the Truman Sports Complex; parade parking and spectating are free.

11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Cowtown Family Fun Fest, features children’s entertainment such as inflatables, petting zoo, pony rides and autograph sessions.

7 p.m. Barbecue Hall of Fame (2015 inductees are Steven Raichlen, national barbecue cookbook author; Paul Kirk, Kansas City-based pitmaster and a KCBS charter member; and Ed Fisher, an industry leader who introduced the Big Green Egg kamodo style cooker.)

9 p.m. Big & Rich concert

Also new this year: Zarda Bar-B-Q and Plowboys barbecue will provide food options.

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