BBQ teams are known to be fiercely competitive. They also strive to share good food. Recently I discovered a whole realm of barbecue teams and individuals that have come together to provide solid meals to communities affected by natural disaster.

After a huge EF-5 tornado devastated about six miles of area southwest of the Joplin, MO community in May 2011 (marked as the second deadliest tornado in U.S. history), competition barbecue teams from eight states came out to help feed displaced families and first responders. Led by Stan Hays (County Line Smokers team), Jeff Stith (Big Creek BBQ team) and Will Cleaver (Sticks-n-Chicks BBQ team), they used social media to raise funds and mobilize an operation that ended up serving more than 120,000 meals in less than two weeks. Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) was founded at that point.

OBR sets up in areas affected by hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, floods and tornadoes, providing comfort food to people needing a hot meal in the aftermath of catastrophe—at no cost to those they are feeding. They try to serve a balanced meal, with a minimum of a protein, one or two sides and when possible some fruit and other items.

Highlights of some past deployments:

  • In September 2011, Hurricane Irene plowed through the eastern seaboard, then was followed by Tropical Storm Lee that left torrential amounts of rainfall. Harrisburg, PA, faced its worst flooding in more than 40 years and OBR was there to serve 5,000 meals in three days.
  • Once Hurricane Sandy hit the northern Atlantic region in October 2012, OBR was there for 12 days and provided 100,000 meals in the Hoboken, Staten Island, Long Beach and Brick NJ/NY areas.
  • OBR served 143,000 meals to tornado victims outside Oklahoma City, OK in May 2013—their largest operation thus far—over a 12-day period.
  • Almost 26,000 hot meals in six days were served after a massive storm system (tornado) hit Washington, IL  in November 2014.
  • They were in Wimberley, TX in late May 2015, providing 3,200 hot meals to the first responders and victims of flooding.
  • Most recently OBR deployed to Coal City, IL in June 2015 after massive damage was caused by a tornado. More than 5,500 meals were provided in four days.

Due to the fact competitive BBQ teams are mobile, they are ready to organize, set up and cook rather quickly. OBR is comprised of a network of volunteers: competitive teams, judges and barbecue enthusiasts that are used to being in a parking lot or field and who want to help those who really need a balanced, hot meal. Thus far, they have responded to 25 disasters across 17 states and have provided more than 575,845 meals, with an average of 4,265 meals per day of deployment.

I recently spoke with two of the founders: Stan Hays, who serves as OBR’s president/CEO (below, left) and Will Cleaver, OBR’s vice president/CFO (below, right)—both of whom maintain full time jobs, juggle family and kids’ commitments, barbecue team competitions and catering, in addition to overseeing OBR.

Stan hays
Will Cleaver

Grate Bites (GB): Explain how you were able to get the word out and organize the first event in Joplin, MO…how did you guys make it happen? (trailers, food, funding, etc.)

Operation BBQ Relief (OBR): It was really about the BBQ community coming together….We basically put the word out on Facebook that we were going to Joplin…said we were going, promoted it on our individual Facebook pages and to use a movie quote, “We built it and they came.” The people in barbecue have already been doing what we are doing. All we did was give them a purpose and redirect them to a more concerted effort as a group. Almost every one of us [and our followers and supporters] have cooked and helped a local PTA and other organizations. It wasn’t hard to get [people] out there. The hardest part was trying to figure out what we do once we got there. How do we maximize being able to serve people?

GB: How do you figure out the details? For example, when I have parties I have to estimate the number of paper plates and napkins needed, the quantity and type of main course to cook, who is bringing desserts…. How do the details fall into place for events of this size?

OBR: We started with ‘what are our biggest needs?’ Like aluminum foil, water stands…. The bulk of our [cooked] food goes to other locations…In Joplin, it went to civic centers, churches, relief sites where they had plates and utensils. For the on-site feeding we did, we used the styrofoam to-go clam shells to serve…when we built meals and had serving lines then we put out on our FB pages what we needed…when donations started flowing in, we worked with another nonprofit we support here in Kansas City called Kookers Kare—made up of bbq folks who work with food banks in the Kansas City area. We used that connection and people made donations to them. As a result, we spent about $15,000 at Sam’s Club the second day we were there [for food] thanks to donations.

GB: How does the organization decide if it will deploy after a disaster? What constitutes the need to put out the call and get out to a location?

OBR: It’s something that’s evolving more and more as we figure out what we’re doing, but the biggest thing we look at is there must be a need. There are disasters that happen that hit communities hard, but the communities are still able to respond for themselves. The commercial districts may be open, the churches, the civic organizations may be ready to help. Our philosophy is that it’s always better if a community can heal itself, rather than having us come in, as an outside organization, and be involved. If there isn’t a need for mass feeding (about 700–1,000 meals/day as a minimum) then we have to look at why we would go: Each potential location is looked at based on its own merits and needs. Some places are a no-brainer like Moore, OK…Washington, IL…because of the damage that occurred. But if restaurants are open, things are happening at the local level—we want to push the money back towards the community. Insurance companies provide living expenses for people displaced after [these catastrophes], so we want folks to go to those restaurants.

GB: After disasters occur, you’ll consider going anywhere across the country where there is need?

OBR: We have volunteers in pretty much all of the lower 48 states. And since we have representation all across the country, we can respond fairly quickly. But we always need more.  People can register at https://operationbbqrelief.org/register to become a volunteer.

GB: How much lead time do you need from the time you decide to put the word out and the pits are fired up?

OBR: We were serving lunch, in Moore, OK, the next day. We were on-site less than 20 hours after the tornado hit.

GB: How do you anticipate how many volunteers you need for each event? For example, how did you get the people you needed for a large event such as Oklahoma City?

OBR: All of [the needs] sort of cascade. The first 48 hours we will ramp up [the number of volunteers] to build our compound, to get things put together. For the really big events, we have a lot of volunteers running food around. We try to stay away from having food service lines and partner with organizations such as churches, or in the case of Oklahoma City it was a Baptist college. We took food over to their cafeteria and they served the locals. We have email set up as well as a phone number so organizations such as civic groups and churches can place an order for pans of food from us for the next day.

GB: What is the average cost of a meal (OBR’s expense)?

OBR: If you include equipment costs and the cost of doing business, so to speak, we’re somewhere around $2.50–2.75 a meal.

GB: What do you envision for the future and growth for OBR?

OBR: Pay the bills we already have, is what we’re focusing on. One of the biggest challenges is actually two-fold: Groups who are not familiar with us don’t understand the capacity we can actually cook. And they have a pre-conceived idea that we are a bunch of fat guys drinking beer, running a smoker. They don’t realize that most of us in the core group cater…and catering an event of 300–500 people is what we do on the weekends. The other challenge is that people think that if we’ve provided over half a million meals then we must have some large corporate backing. We are starting to get more partnerships with different companies, but we still don’t have a true large corporate sponsor.

If you would have asked us four years ago what we thought [as far as the future of OBR] we would have just hoped that we could continue to do what we had done in Joplin a couple of times a year. We never, ever envisioned it would become as big as it has, that we would have done what we’ve done so far. The day we hit the half-a-million-meals-served mark, that was the two-and-a-half-year mark to the day that we fired our pits up in Joplin. It’s sort of eery to think that it’s 30 months of providing disaster relief and we just served your half-millionth meal. Our focus now is sustainability, it’s on relationships—not just partnerships or sponsorships [with companies]. We want something more than just a check that comes into our bank account when needed. [Ideally] we want organizations that want to help, want to have the people in their organizations come out to help.

How to help or get involved:

  • Visit the Operation BBQ Relief website. Under the support tab there are a variety of ways you can keep OBR
  • Donate funds (tax deductible 501c3 organization)
  • Donate your time (as a volunteer or as an experienced pitmaster)
  • Follow them on Facebook as well as on Twitter (@opbbqrelief)—that way you can stay up to date on what OBR is doing and what their needs may be, particularly if a deployment is necessary. 

For more information or to contact them directly, visit operationbbqrelief.org

Operation BBQ Relief
Meals provided to displaced residents after the massive tornado that hit Washington, IL in Nov. 2014
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