Rib vendors bringing home the bacon at Kickoff festival
Rib vendors say they’re in hog heaven at Pittsburgh’s annual Kickoff and Rib Festival.
Barbecuers preparing for Friday’s lunchtime crowd outside Heinz Field said the five-day event running through Monday features free admission and is heavily promoted.
It typically draws large crowds because of North Shore sporting events and free concerts, and they like that their entrance fee — which the Steelers, who organize the event, wouldn’t disclose — includes water, electricity and disposal of grease, spent charcoal and used water.
All of that spells profit, according to Ron Conaway of Willis, Texas, who’s been bringing his Texas Pit BBQ to Pittsburgh for 16 years.
Conaway said Pittsburgh is among the largest rib festivals on a barbecue circuit that stretches from Nevada to the East Coast and south to Florida. Vendors are on the road from spring to early fall.
“Oh yeah, it’s very profitable,” Conaway said, estimating his annual margin at about 35 percent. “Most businesses feel lucky to make 20 percent.”
He and other vendors who spoke to the Tribune-Review declined to say how much they make or spend in overhead traveling from event to event.
But you can do the math, at least on rib sales in Pittsburgh.
At the start of the Pittsburgh show, the 13 rib vendors in attendance set a minimum price of $25 for a full slab. They buy cases of spare ribs from the same company, US Foods, based in Rosemont, Ill. Twelve to 14 slabs come in a case.
Vendors each said they hope to sell at least 700 to 800 slabs, which translates into $17,500 to $20,000. That doesn’t count sales of smoked brisket, chicken, sausage, pulled pork sandwiches and trimmings.
“I have to (make) about $10,000 to break even,” Conaway said. “That’s about 35 cases of ribs.”
Conaway travels and sleeps in a recreational vehicle, where most have to find hotel rooms.
Stacy Bradley, owner of Bad Azz BBQ and Fire Truck Pizza, can sleep at home. The Baldwin resident has the only local stand at the festival this year.
She said she started the business with help from her father, Scott, to pay off college loans and took it on the road for a first time in 2016. She’s been to four out-of-town events so far in addition to covering local farmer’s markets and catering.
Rain is her worst fear.
“We ordered 40 cases (of ribs), and we hope to get through this weekend if the weather holds off,” she said.
Chuck Smith, a manager for Smoke Shack BBQ of Columbus, Ohio, claims his ribs “have been smoking so long, they should be in rehab.” He said the company attends about 52 events per year and hopes to sell about 140 cases of ribs in Pittsburgh.
That would amount to about $42,000.
“We better make some money, or we wouldn’t be here,” Smith said.
Stephen Wolf, owner of Bad Wolf Barbecue of Kansas City, Mo., said he’s traveled the circuit for 22 years and attends about 14 events annually. He’s not in it just for the money.
“I love it,” he said. “There’s always obstacles to overcome, and I like that. You’re setting up in a new city, and we have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s always interesting.”
Dallas Green, owner of Cowboy’s Barbecue and Rib Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, said he’s been selling in Pittsburgh since 1992 when the festival was held outside Three Rivers Stadium.
He said he averages 140 to 150 cases of ribs per event.
“I sell at least 1,000 pounds of brisket, 300 to 400 pounds of pork and about 300 pounds of sausage,” he said. “I never have to worry about (missing) Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I have the money to do what I want.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].