It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Nope, it’s a ridiculously big rack of ribs silhouetted against the Kansas City skyline.
If you’re heading out of downtown Kansas City via Interstate 35, pack a stack of napkins. You’ll need them to sop the drool off your dashboard while driving by a billboard featuring the “World’s Largest BBQ.”
The billboard, which went up Monday morning by Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen, is part of a “Ribdiculous” summer campaign to remind viewers of a superlative that often gets lost in the rearview mirror: The American Royal World Series of Barbecue is the largest barbecue competition in the world.
The inflatable rack of ribs has realistic 3-D “char” marks and appears to be propped up on four hefty pronged serving forks big enough to feed superhuman folk hero Paul Bunyan. In fact, the ribs are so darn big — 50 feet wide by 8 feet tall by 2 feet deep — that the American Royal invited a structural engineer to attend the installation.
Matt Farber is a senior associate at Thornton Tomasetti, a leading engineering and design firm that handles large-scale projects worldwide, including U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings football team.
The ribs will be on display until Aug. 20, at which time Farber and crew will move them to the Kansas Speedway for the American Royal Barbecue Contest Aug. 31 to Sept. 3. The Royal moved to the Speedway in 2016.
Farber is helping the Royal figure out where to place the ribs, how high they’ll be off the ground and what kind of supports the structure will need. A public relations associate for the American Royal offers a whopper of a comparison: The ribs are bigger than a blue whale’s.
“I don’t know about that,” Farber says with a laugh when asked to confirm. “I do know know it’s 70,000 pounds — if the ribs were actually made of meat.”
Yup, that’s big enough to feed a whole bunch of Kansas Citians.
The rib rack — which weighs a mere 120 pounds before it’s inflated with air — was constructed by Canadian-based Soft Signs and shipped to Kansas City. The “air sculpture” is secured with a belt system. Instead of a thin sheen of barbecue sauce mopped to finish the meat, the inflatable has been treated with UV protection so it can withstand the elements for eight to 10 months.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, is co-sponsoring the billboard.
Could the Ribdiculous billboard be the next Salvy Splash?
In 2016, fans flocked to a Salvy Splash 3-D billboard on Southwest Boulevard for selfies depicting themselves as the recipient of Royals catcher Salvador Perez’s trademark Gatorade bath after a win.
But the Ribiculous billboard on the I-35 location does not offer a safe place to pull off the road. Instead, Smithfield created a #RibdiculousChallenge social media campaign. Kansas Citians are encouraged to hashtag photos of anything they do or see throughout the summer they think is “ribdiculous.” The winner gets a year’s supply of fresh pork products — yes ribs, but also chops, tenderloins and more.
Roadside food icons were once a part of the interstate highway landscape. Think Bob’s Big Boy or the Tastee-Freez family. Eater recently featured a piece titled “Why Restaurants’ Kitschy Roadside Attractions Are Making a Comeback,” but increasingly lightweight inflatables have been capturing passing motorists’ attention.
To tie the visual road feast back to the kind of finger-licking, rib-sticking barbecue the American Royal pays homage to, Joe’s KC founder and 2017 Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Stehney smoked Smithfield ribs for the TV cameras and media Monday morning.
“When they were developing the concept, I assumed it would be built out as a heavy structure in 3-D … but this is how things are shifting for billboards,” says Taylor Davis, associate brand manager for Smithfield’s fresh pork division. “I’m excited to see it come to life because I think this may be taking over where your side-of-the-road attractions left off.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her on Facebook, @jillwsilva on Instagram and @kcstarfood on Twitter.