BBQ Fest 2008: It’s always darkest before the dawn

2007 was the first year for The Ques Brothers, the team that was the predecessor to my team The Moody Ques. One of our teammates worked for Terex at the time and arranged a generous sponsorship. We had a large, two story booth wrapped in an image of Terex equipment. There was plenty of food, plenty of booze, everyone had a good time and we all agreed that we wanted there to be a second year.

However, 2008 would have its challenges.

For one thing, our teammate with the Terex connection had moved on to another company. Also, Memphis in May created a new rule that sponsor signs on the outside of booths had to fit certain measurements; as a result, the Terex wrap became illegal. For those reasons, Terex decided not to return as a sponsor. We arranged a small sponsorship with Downtown restaurant Circa by John Bragg, but we could not find a presenting, title sponsor who would put up the several thousands of dollars that Terex did.

On April 23 of that year, we had a team meeting at the Flying Saucer. Team captain Chuck told us that we were three grand in the red. It’s one of the few times I have ever raised my voice at a team meeting. “Why didn’t you tell me we were that far in the red?” I told Chuck. “I could have used my blog to recruit sponsors, and more members.” I had no idea our outlook was that bleak.

The team leaders assured me that everything was fine, that we would get through this.

The lack of sponsorship money meant that we couldn’t afford to pay a company to erect scaffolding. That would have meant that a two-story booth was out of the question, which would have been bad news because the river view from the second story was one of the major draws to our booth. We (or at least I) wanted to establish the Ques Brothers as one of the best parties in Tom Lee Park, and it would be very hard to do that on one story.

However, we had an out. You can only erect scaffolding that did not come from a Memphis in May-approved vendor if you own the scaffolding. We had a team member who owned scaffolding. Yay, problem solved!

…Well, until we got to load-in and saw the scaffolding. It was rickety, shitty, and possibly dangerous. It only covered about a third of the length of the booth. It nearly fell over when we had a forklift erect it. But on our limited budget, we would have to make do.

The scaffolding was not raised, so we spent a good portion of the week (into Thursday, the first public day at the time) nailing wooden boards together so we would have something to walk on other than mud. To make our booth look nice for the judges, we laid donated carpet samples of all different sizes and colors over the boards. Instead of a sharp-looking wrap for the outside of our booth, we had fabric. The booth was by no means a palace – and the Valero booth next door with a $30,000 budget made it look even worse by comparison – but we would have to make do.

We got through Friends & Family Night on Wednesday, but overnight storms moved through Downtown Memphis, ripping our fabric decorations to pieces. Our booth was a shambles when we arrived Thursday morning. We spent hours redecorating and sweeping out mud, trying to make our booth look as good as we could – really, trying to make our booth less horrible would be a better way to phrase it. It really looked like Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law had visited us in every possible way.

Then amazing things started to happen.

Thursday night we hooked up the iPod to the sound system, shined a spotlight on a disco ball I had donated, and the party began. And before long it became THE place to be in Tom Lee Park. Our teammates were there, our friends were there, and quite a few owners of Downtown businesses paid us a visit. Everyone wanted to get in. There was plenty of beer, and everyone in the booth was dancing. To this day I would rank Thursday night of BBQ Fest ’08 as the best party the Ques Brothers or any of its successor teams ever threw. I looked over at the $30,000 booth next door with the Valero corporate sponsorship and thought, “Beautiful booth… but we’re having more fun than they are.”

Friday night we had a birthday party for one of our team members. It was not as wild as Thursday night, but there was just such a feeling of team unity. We were all in this thing together.

Saturday, of course, was judging day. The shoulder teams always go first, with the judges coming between 11 AM and noon. I prefer not to arrive at the booth until after the judges have left, so I pre-gamed at the Saucer that day, not getting to the park until a little after 2 PM.

I found my teammates standing outside our booth quietly. Inside our team leaders and head cook were presenting to judges. I was confused. “What’s going on?” I asked a teammate. “I didn’t think they ever came this late to shoulder teams.”

“If the judges come back a second time, it means you’ve made the top 10 in your division. If they come back again, you’ve made the top 3. This is the judges’ third visit.”

TOP THREE! We were going on stage! We were getting a trophy! We were getting prize money! Sure enough, about 6:45 this evening, the announcement was made. “Third place in shoulder, the Ques Brothers.” We all went up on stage and collected our trophy.

Thanks to the prize money, along with tips left at the bar and a last-minute recruitment drive, we finished the year with money in the bank, having dug out of that $3000 hole from only three weeks before.

Our head cook at the time, Willie Wagner, took the trophy back to his Chicago restaurant Honky Tonk Barbeque. A month later, Mayor Richard M. Daley came out to the restaurant to issue a proclamation congratulating Willie for representing the Windy City well at the world championships of BBQ.

After our Thursday night party and our Saturday night trip to the stage, scraping together enough money was not an issue in 2009. Many people wanted to join our team, with membership ballooning to about 70. Matt Mullenweg, head honcho of WordPress (the very WordPress used to publish this blog) and a huge BBQ fan, heard about our 3rd place finish and offered a WordPress sponsorship. In addition, Holliday Flowers came on board as booth design sponsor, seeing a unique opportunity to show off what they can do for event design. The professional scaffolding was back, and the booth was beautiful and the floor was raised off the mud. Only one year later, we had a better booth than the ’08 Valero booth.

Just a reminder that things can change quickly at BBQ Fest. Optimistic about 2017!