By KATE LUDLOW
The annual Liberty Hill Livestock Association BBQ Cook-off and carnival kicks off in less than a month, and event organizers are turning the heat up on festivity planning.
The three-day event feature a carnival, with everything from funnel cakes to face-painting, and over 100 cooking teams competing in what has become the largest Central Texas Barbecue Association sanctioned cook-off.
LHLA President Kenny Adair and his wife, Courtney, talked to The Independent about what it takes to put on a large-scale event, and shared the inside story on the biggest event in Liberty Hill.
The BBQ Cook-off first got its start about 17 years ago.
“We think it was 17. We’re not entirely sure,” says Adair with a laugh. “The records aren’t all there.”
In the beginning, a few barbecue teams gathered behind the VFW Post 8200 building in downtown Liberty Hill.
“At the time, we were sharing the money with the VFW, with the other part going to the Livestock Association. It was there for years, before it simply got too big. It was just overflowing the space,” he said.
Five years ago, the event was moved to Indian Mound Ranch on State Highway 29, owned by Clarence and Pat Jones.
“We are truly blessed to have the Joneses let us do something like this. We work for it. We go shred the spots down, clear out our areas. They get a cut of the parking money. But it’s so easy to get to, and it’s so beautiful out there. We’re truly fortunate for that,” says Adair.
The event requires 50-60 adult volunteers, and the LHLA is adamant that the students get involved.
“They earn this,” he said. “They gather the parking money, help park cars, work our refreshment booth, put out the cones and barricades, put in fence posts. They even pick up the trash cans, the nasty ones people have been putting cooking mess into for three days.”
The Adairs are proud that the kids work the event, and they work hard to help themselves – every dollar the Cook-off raises goes right back to the kids.
“It’s in our bylaws,” says Adair, “The only thing we can spend our money on is purchasing placing animals from the Williamson County Livestock Show.”
The show runs for a week in December, and last year, the LHLA was able to purchase 64 animals in the amount of $46,180. The animals go right back to the kids, who can then resell them for profit to buy another animal, or keep them for pets. According to Adair, a show pig can cost $2,500 “if it stays healthy, so having their show animals purchased eases the financial burden that the children and their parents incur in raising an animal for show.”
The barbecue cookers are also philanthropic – the cost of participating in the event can run a barbecue team up to $7,500.
“The cookers take care of all costs themselves. They do it all, and in the end, they give their tip jars back to the kids. They’ve been doing that since day one. All they get out of it is a trophy,” he said.
Each barbecue team has a tip bucket located at their booth. As people come in, they are welcome to sample each cooker’s food, and are encouraged to make a small donation to a tip jar. The team with the most donations at the end of the night wins the People’s Choice Award. Prizes are also awarded for ribs, brisket, chicken, beans and sauce. The winning barbecue teams also gain CTBA points, and since this event is so large, winners are automatically eligible for the Nationals in Kansas City.
The barbecue teams add to the excitement by providing live entertainment, movies, horseshoes, and dancing. In the past, country music acts like Johnny Lyon & the Country Nu Notes and Kyle Park have performed. This year, one team will be showing a Saturday night family-friendly movie.
The LHLA coordinates with local police and fire departments to keep the event as safe as possible.
“Last year, the fire department (Williamson County Emergency Services District #4) made us put a 2,000-pound tanker on-site. At first, I was against it, but when I realized what could happen with the barbecue pits going against this drought, I was grateful for that. We also had a guy start choking on a piece of brisket. When it happened, there was a paramedic standing five feet from him. He made the choking sign, the paramedic went right over, and helped him out,” said Adair.
The LHLA also hires Williamson County Sherriff’s Officers to work patrol during the event.
“The police presence is always welcome. I don’t want anyone hurt or injured during the event,” Adair said.
Safety is the LHLA’s priority, and as such, they have instituted a change.
“This year, all walk-ins will be charged $10. We had a problem in years past where kids would get their parents to drop them off across the highway, and they’d cross and walk in. They’d do this at night, sometimes in black t-shirts and dark jeans. It just scared me. I’m not trying to empty the kids’ pockets. A parent can bring in a whole van load of kids and only pay $10, so there’s ways to do this for cheap. I’m just trying to keep them safe,” he said.
One difference returning barbecue fans will notice is corporate sponsors — a move that Adair says will only help raise more money.
“They pay dearly for the dirt they’re on. If they want to come out, and drum up a little business, I’m not against that. But they will pay for it,” he said.
Adair says that companies including Mac Haik, Verizon, and Carl’s Jr. will offer an additional layer of activities, and an easy source of extra revenue for the event.
This year will be the Adairs third year running the event. They credit all the board members for using their personal time to make this happen.
“They give so much, and they do an amazing job. We really spend about eight months planning this out, though we spend all year thinking. They get their families involved, and they work on the sections they naturally fall into,” he said.
Adair’s first year as president, he was elected 45 days before the event.
“They didn’t throw me in the fire, but I had to figure it all out pretty quickly. We lost members each year, and they need to be replaced. But no one ever gets thrown in to sink or swim. Everyone who gets a job usually has been around, and they’ve watched and learned how it all goes.”
Though it is a massive amount of work, Adair says he is glad to do it.
“I’d rather do one event, and raise more money. I’m not going to do 40 bake sales and car washes. This is a three-day event, and it makes more money,” he said.
This year, things will be swathed in a bit more red tape, and we can look to Tim Tebow for the reason.
“Well, Tim Tebow is coming to an event in Georgetown. So that made everyone start looking at Mass Gathering Permits a little harder,” said Adair.
By state law, a Mass Gathering Permit is required if the event will hold more than 2,499 people at one time. Because alcohol is consumed at the event, though it is not sold, 51 percent of the crowd must be over the age of 21, according to Adair.
“Right now, we’re over 75 percent adults. I don’t think we have 2,499 at one point in time. Now, over the whole event, yes, we probably get that many. But not all at once,” he said.
The Adairs are working with their local government to stay within state law.
The Adairs look forward to hosting the cook-off because it’s an event the entire community supports.
“The sponsors and donations just start flooding in,” he said.
Adair says that many items necessary to the event infrastructure are donated, including golf carts and storage buildings. Sponsors will have banners hanging throughout the event for advertising.
“The support from the community is overwhelming,” he said. “This town has always been big on the barbecue cook-off. Even in a tough economy it went well.”
The Annual Liberty Hill Livestock Association BBQ Cook-off & Carnival will be April 20 and 21 at Indian Mound Ranch. For more information, or to sign up your barbecue team, visit the website.