In this second part of the 2016 Memphis in May Trilogy, we have Mr. Shane Draper of Draper’s BBQ giving his account of why he loves Memphis in May and considers it the pinnacle of world-famous BBQ competitions. Shane knows BBQ history and the history of BBQ runs deep and wide within his own personal family tradition. I think you’ll really enjoy this write up from Shane, and I invite you to comment below to share your own thoughts and favorite Memphis in May moments. (See all parts of this Memphis in May Trilogy here.)
2016 Memphis in May Trilogy: Revenge of the Pit
Memphis in May has earned its reputation as one of the big three competitions in the barbecue world. For me it is the pinnacle, I know some will disagree as we all have our favorites for personal reasons. Yes, the American Royal is bigger team wise and the Jack is special because you have to be invited, but there is something about MIM that can’t be replicated. Perhaps it’s the river, perhaps it’s the history of barbecue in Memphis itself. It’s hard to say but everyone feels it once they walk down that hill to Tom Lee park the first time and see the mighty river on one side and the I 40 bridge and Bass Pro Shop’s pyramid obscured by smoke and haze in the background. There is something monumental about MIM and you can’t help but feel the magnitude of it once you have competed there.
Memphis in May: A Huge Commitment of Time, Talent, and Money. And It’s Totally Worth It
MIM is the only contest of the big three where you see powerhouse pitmasters coming together to form teams. This is done out of necessity in many cases because of the sheer monetary mountain that has to be dealt with just to enter. It is nothing for a team to have ten thousand dollars tied up in entry fees, supplies, rentals, etc. That does not include cost of feeding and housing team members the week of MIM.
Some teams fund-raise literally a whole year to pay their way in. Some find large sponsors and try to promote the sponsor’s products. Others charge team members several hundred dollars to be on the team. There is no magic formula for getting to MIM but one common thread for all those teams and that is the desire to get there to have a small chance to get across one of the most hallowed stages in all of barbecue.
I’ve been a part of a few MIM teams and was invited to be a part of a very well known and successful team this year. I sat and thought about the opportunity and I kind of had that “what would Mike Mill’s do” conversation with myself. In the end I decided Mike would form his own team even if it meant finishing lower in the final standings. The reality of being able to get a rookie team across that stage is a slim one at best, but somehow standing on your own instead of riding on coat tails seemed the better option. This option would of course be 100 times more work and frustration and literally cost thousands more, but it was the only way to be able to see just what we could do.
It was also a way that I could put together a team to pay respect to Holly of Tucker Cooker company. Holly was responsible for inviting me and many of my closest barbecue friends to their first MIM as part of Team Tucker Cooker. Unfortunately we lost her earlier in the year and she always anchored our MIM team, so it was a good way to get the boys back together again for one more dance for Holly.
Getting a Sponsor and Assembling Our Team
So the hunt for sponsors began, and I was fortunate to have a great relationship with Grilla Grills – a company I have helped with a few ideas over the years. They also just so happened to be looking at launching some new products, so it was a situation that benefited both of us. After a couple of meetings – and some crazy looks from across the table back in my direction – they agreed to come on board.
Once sponsorship was set it was time to literally sit down and figure out who should be drafted as part of the team. I treated this process much like one would approach a football draft, looking at what positions needed to be filled and then making a list of people I’d like to have fill them. My first calls went to my old Tucker Cooker compadres Capt Ron Worby, Jim Loggin and Hoyt Liggons. These guys are work horses and there can be no MIM without them.
Thankfully I was able to put together a great team this year. It wasn’t without lots of begging and deal making, but I am proud to literally have on the team authors, chefs, seasoned veteran pitmasters, reality tv veterans, one of the foremost kamado experts, hog breeders, restaurateurs and complete and total noobies that have never been to a legit barbecue competition. I wanted to load the team with a gambit of experience but most of all different perspectives. I also wanted people that I genuinely enjoyed being around.
The Sad Loss of a Good Friend Means Bringing New Pitmasters Into the Fold…
Unfortunately in the early spring Hoyt passed away unexpectedly and this shook us all to our core. Hoyt was one of the best people I knew bar none. Big laugh, big personality, great pitmaster and a friend to everyone he ever met. We were able to pick up the pieces and fill the roles needed and thankfully the right people came along but Hoyt was sorely missed.
The thing few people tell you when you when you decide to do MIM as one of the organizers of a team is just how much work goes into this thing. Yeah, you get that it will take a couple of weeks, but the reality is that MIM was worked on in one form or another from January until mid May. The amount of planning involved and small things that have to be dealt with are monumental. None of that includes trying to get a team that includes people who have never actually met in person on the same page and functional as a machine.
Getting them functioning as a well oiled machine is another story entirely. With so many members of the team being new to MIM, it was nearly impossible to prepare them for the toll that the week of MIM takes on you. Everyone underestimates the physical and emotion strain one undergoes as part Memphis in May. It’s not a sprint… it’s a marathon. What’s more – there’s no way to really impart such an understanding to new folks. I started preaching very early on about getting mentally prepared and also warning everyone that if you have some weight to lose, do so. I dropped 40lbs because I knew I would have no energy left come the crucial days of Friday and Saturday. Also I made sure everyone knew that eating right and pushing fluids (other than beer) would be key.
Memphis in May: It Takes a Village – of BBQ Warriors, That Is
Everyone is used to the grind for a 2 day KCBS competition but the teams that get across the stage at MIM peak when it counts and that’s at the end. Peaking when you have zero gas left in the tank due to partying, dehydration, bad diet and sleep deprivation is hard. Everyone thinks they can man up and deliver after the third or fourth day of being tired, but honestly few can and even fewer do. That’s why having enough team members who can share the workload is critical. It takes the a crew and everyone doing a little something nearly all the time to really get it all done.
Planning, Prepping, and Loading Up…
My personal MIM started the Sunday before load in packing up our trailers and making preparations for all the gear to get to Memphis. I knew the following Sunday there would be no time to do these things because we needed to be able to hook to the gear, drive the 3hrs to Memphis, get it loaded in the site and then the real work would start. Many teams start loading into Tom Lee park a full week before the finals judging. It takes that long get all the site pieces like massive tents, multi-story scaffolding, flooring, etc set up. Literally a large army descends upon Tom Lee park and works non stop to make this all happen. You have 200 teams dancing thousands upon thousands of dollars of gear around each other to get their site ready for the big show.
Once we got the trailers in place I sent the rest of the team home and I stayed in Memphis working on the site each day and ensuring the companies we rented flooring and tents from stayed on the ball to get our part set up as promised. The remainder of the team mostly got there starting Wednesday and that’s when the rest of fun started.
Nose to the Grindstone – Setting Up and Pushing Through
You think having 20+ people at your disposal will get it all done. Sadly what it means is that there are 19+ people looking at you for answers for EVERYTHING from how and where to set up lighting to talking about the process for final presentation and judging. This is a symptom of mostly everyone being new to MIM and not enough veterans. I knew this going in and while it may have been frustrating initially, I knew by Thursday everyone would be firing on mostly all cylinders.
With so much to do as you set up your area at Memphis in May, its important to understand chain of command and doing your part no matter how small the task to ensure it everything gets done. I’m not a “let’s hold hands and talk about it” kind of guy. I much prefer dealing with people who function that way as well.
One smart thing I did was ensuring I got a co-captain on board in Ken Wood who could translate and deal with things. Ken is very detail oriented, lives by a timeline and was crucial to balance things out. Ken was at a huge disadvantage this year since he’s never survived a MIM before but I know next year he will be leading the charge and dragging me up the hill with him.
Each day of MIM is a blurry mixture of trying to take in the moment and just be thankful for even getting to be there and getting all the things done that are required to get across the stage. I could go on and on about each day’s challenges and give a play by play but this would turn into a novel. In the end I want everyone to take away from this just how hard it is to pull off MIM and what a special thing it is to even be there as a competitor.
The Sauce Was Boss… and Taking 2nd Place at MIM Was Amazing
From a personal perspective this MIM was very sweet. I was able to get some very deserving people a ticket to the big dance. I know no one can ever take that from any of us. I also finally got across the stage with a 2nd place win in the Cattleman’s tomato based sauce category. I’ve personally placed 12th and 6th in previous trips. I was confident of a top 10 with the latest sauce I put together and knew it in my bones that it was a special recipe. I hoped for a top 5, but nothing is better than hearing your name called at MIM and getting to go up on the stage. It was literally on my bucket list and to do so for a category that I did completely on my own was sweet indeed.
What made this win sweeter is the backstory of the sauce itself…
I had agreed to work on a couple of sauces and rubs for Grilla Grills for them to market. I had already submitted the final product to the lab for them to build a sample of and a few days before departing I received the sample back. I was so happy with the first lab sample that I decided to bench the sauce I made at home and enter the actual lab sample. I knew this was either going to be crazy and bite me in the butt, or it would make for a great story. Thankfully the latter became the reality. I just wanted to be able to tell everyone that the sauce that was in the bottles under Grilla’s Thick and Bold label was 100% no BS the sauce that went across the stage. I believed in the recipe, the work I had done and the labs work that much. I know with some exposure this will be one of the go to competition sauces for chicken and ribs bar none.
A Special Thanks to Grilla Grills…
Grilla is a fantastic company that believed in me when I needed it. They rekindled a fire and they deserve as much credit as I do for this sauce. I wouldn’t submit the recipe to the lab until I knew it was as good as I could make it. Not just good enough to be a good sauce that they could slap a label on, but something great to repay them for being such a stand up company made up of fantastic people. I delayed the deadline on this sauce to perfect it, and they never pushed back – even though I know they wanted to. I hope they sell millions of bottles of Thick and Bold, because they deserve it.
Whole Hog… a Big Learning Experience
I wish I could tell the same Cinderella story for our whole hog finish, but being a rookie team got us in the end. We finished honestly where we deserved, in the middle of the pack. We had several issues come up during the cook that a more experienced team would have handled. Unfortunately most of the team was at the awards going across the stage at a very critical time in the hog prep process. This delayed them going on when they should have.
We also had issues with trying to cook hogs that were bigger than we had hoped they would be. This was not insurmountable, but definitely compounded the problem. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say and I own all those issues and they have been mitigated for any future MIM whole hog entries.
The winners of MIM are ones that have cooks without any significant issues and then are ready to deliver for on site judging. Unfortunately, we had some issues that continued on Saturday morning, which hurt us. Those issues of people being out of gas really started to show up as I forewarned. If nothing else it proved to everyone I was not completely full of crap, at least on this particular issue. I have zero doubt that with everyone having experienced this first hand that moving forward with members of this team it will never be an issue again. This is not me finger pointing as I learned the very same hard lesson my first MIM and it’s one that it seems all must learn.
Memphis in May 2016: Final Thoughts
I am not in anyway upset by our finishes as all were deserved and all brought forth the lessons needed. Everyone on Team Grilla worked very hard and I am proud of every single person. I have no hard feelings at all and I am blessed to be able to call everyone on the team my friend and team mate. We had people that did nothing but clean and wash things the whole time they were there who were absolutely as critical as the people who cooked the hogs.
They say there is no “I” in team and I promise you that there can be no winning at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest without a cast of people that are willing to do the small tasks. Trust me when I say this, because MIM is loaded with them. The prima donnas get thrown in the river by the end of the week to make way for the people who get stuff done. There were no prima donnas on our team, I’ll tell you that right here.
Memphis in May for me is still the pinnacle of the barbecue world.
Anyone who tells you differently hasn’t competed there or just don’t fully understand what it takes to make it through the MIM challenge and win. The Royal is amazing in its size, but for me it lacks the mystique of Memphis in May. The Jack to me comes close to offering what you see at MIM, as it has the benefit of the hollow and being an invitational and all the hubbub around getting a draw to get in.
But somehow for this guy who was raised on the mighty Mississippi river and baptized in the smoke of my grandfather’s barbecue joint at an early age — Memphis in May just fits. Somehow in all the chaos, the challenges you face in trying to have a great cook, the money involved and the level of hard work required — MIM is equal parts majestic and terrifying.
Once you are cursed with a taste of what MIM brings to the table, all you think about is how to get back there. If it never happens for me again, I’ll be OK knowing at least it happened once — but that won’t stop me from trying to get back. I will always look back on 2016 as being special because I know I did all of this for Hoyt and Holly, and it will always be equally bitter sweet for having lost 2 people so crucial to my barbecue world.
About Shane Draper…
Shane Draper is a veteran, a father of 2 boys and CEO, Chief Flavor Creator and Pitmaster at Draper’s BBQ. Always looking to share his passion for developing great ‘cue, Shane focuses a great deal of his time on helping teams and companies become successful in the barbecue world.