Allen McDavid sat down outside a big white tent on the east end of Fayetteville Street as smoke from barbecue cookers and the scent of meat bathed in spice rubs and secret sauces blended in the open air.
The president of AKA Entertainment & Media and producer of North Carolina’s Premier Barbecue and Music Festivals series brought a four-day RibFest to downtown Raleigh after at least a half decade away.
With competitive pit cookers from South Carolina, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Texas and right here at home, he brought in masked wrestlers, sideshow tent acts and musicians to help entice rib lovers to his tables in a state that has fierce kitchen wars over the best way to cook barbecue.
Diners were licking rib sauce off their fingers and smiling those sated smiles at tables.
What McDavid had not counted on, though, was the active downtown Raleigh street fair culture and the many concerts and free festivals just blocks away.
On Saturday, the Raleigh-Durham Afro-Carribean Association had several City Plaza blocks cordoned off through the afternoon and into the evening for a carnival celebration that featured colorfully costumed dancers, exhibits, crafts, music, parades and lots of food. There were fresh pineapple and fruit concoctions. Meats slathered with Caribbean jerk sauce. Funnel cakes and other standard street fare.
Several thousand people crowded into those few city blocks, queuing up dozens deep near the stage and at the food vendor tents.
There also were crowds at the western end of Fayetteville Street, outside the Capitol, protesting education and criminal justice policies as part of the Moral Week of Action organized by the NAACP.
McDavid, who organized the RibFest on a weekend that no performances were scheduled at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, said he had not factored in the possibility of other activities siphoning potential customers. But that was what was happening, he heard.
Traveling pit bosses
He heard rumblings from some of the pit cookers, who make their living traveling the country to barbecue festivals.
Not only were the crowds not materializing as McDavid had hoped, he was asking $7 at the gate for people to get into the RibFest, then vendors were charging for their slow-cooked ribs, chicken, brisket and other offerings.
Midafternoon Saturday, Jennifer Sargent looked out over the cordoned-off area for RibFest and did not see as many customers as she had hoped for at the Carolina Rib King booth. Sargent and others had come from Spartanburg, S.C. One bad weekend, Sargent said, can make for tough financial times for the traveling pit cookers.
“We really haven’t had any bad weekends until now,” she said.
McDavid, who got into the RibFest business about a decade ago to help a friend in Greensboro promote a Chicago-style fest, said he invested $30,000 to $40,000 in the Raleigh venue. He has 20 people who work for him, he said, and the generators and utilities, as well as the entertainers he brings in, are part of those costs.
In this economy, McDavid said, it has become more difficult to find corporate sponsors, so he charges at the gate and asks the cookers to pay a flat fee to help offset the overall cost.
McDavid, an upbeat promoter with a can-do attitude, said he thought the other events in Raleigh could, in some circumstances, be a boon for the RibFest.
“Some of the promoters don’t share the belief that I have – that critical mass helps everybody,” McDavid said. “Raleigh has it good.”
McDavid said crowds that might have been at the RibFest on Friday night were close by at the Red Hat Amphitheater for the Boston concert, although some trickled over after the show.
He hoped more people would stream in from the Caribbean festival, where the larger crowds were. Raleigh, according to his business estimates, has the potential to bring in at least 15,000 to a RibFest.
The RibFest, which started Thursday, continues on Sunday, too. Hours are noon to 8 p.m.
Kenneth Weeden, a Raleigh resident who hails from the Mississippi Delta, and Anita Hicks, a North Carolinian whose family was in the barbecue business in Henderson, were excited to be at the RibFest.
Weeden praised a slab of ribs he had just finished as reminding him of Delta fare that made him long for home-cooking.
Though he likes North Carolina barbecue, Weeden said he prefers wet sauces and mustard and tomato to the vinegar-based meat.
As a transportation and airport planning consultant, Weeden travels a lot and samples the many varieties of barbecue offered throughout the South.
Hicks said she likes Texas barbecue, which often is beef ribs or brisket. But she prefers North Carolina barbecue.
“That’s not just because I’m from here,” she told Weeden.
McDavid said offering North Carolinians a taste of barbecue from other states was one of his reasons for promoting his festivals.
“I’m a big North Carolina barbecue fan,” McDavid said. “But I like Texas barbecue, too. To me, there’s only two kinds of barbecue. Good and bad. There’s a lot of good barbecue here.”