November 10, 2014

Big Apple BBQ

As a highlight of our recent Food-To-Go Innovation Tour, we attended this year’s Big Apple BBQ Bloc Party. If you love Southern style American BBQ, then the Bloc Party is your Nirvana! 

There are many ways you can experience this festival, but we chose to go the whole hog (excuse the pun) and purchase a Big Piggin’ Pass, which gives you access to the VIP Garden Lounge, unlimited open bar, queue jumping rights and spending money.

So what is it all about? Essentially, the Big Apple BBQ Bloc Party brings together the best pitmasters from all over America and sets them up around Madison Square Park to cook up a storm and show off their wares.  In traditional food festival style you can purchase small plates from each vendor and sample a variety of foods. The difference with the Bloc Party is the showmanship and the all Southern vibe, which is so contagious and wonderful that you can’t help but forget that you’re in NYC and not the Deep South!

The range and amount of food on offer is quite astounding, and it’s nearly impossible to get to all of the vendors. We sampled everything from pulled pork, every type of rib available, sausages, gourmet burgers, slaws, pickled vegetables, chutneys, smokey sauces and my personal favourite – shredded apple cider pork. Everything was amazing … every single bite.

It’s crazy out there amongst the action, and it’s hot! Not only is it summer, but you are surrounded by huge BBQ smoker and trailer pits, open coal fires, and they are smokin’! As you pass through the crowds, you hear the big booming voices of the pitmasters and their crew yelling out, “Step up, c’mon y’all, step up and get it while it’s hot!” The atmosphere is electric, and you are literally swept away by the crowds and find yourself in a line for something that you know will be delicious, but you aren’t quite sure what it is yet … until you reach the front and are welcomed by the overexcited crew, who are so passionate about their product. You purchase a plate and become just as excited as they are, as you devour this incredible food.

Once you have devoured a few plates, you really appreciate your Big Piggin’ Pass (just saying it is fun and novelty enough!) but, as you escape the masses and retreat to the VIP Garden Lounge under the shade of the park’s beautiful old trees, sit back and enjoy a refreshing drink. It is worth its weight in gold – probably more.

As we reclined and tried not to burst, we reflected on what all of this really means, what applications it has for what we do back home and how we can meaningfully implement and action what we have experienced.

The food is a given; it was all delicious and would satisfy even the most critical of judges. It tells us that simplicity is key and that we don’t need too many overwhelming flavours or techniques to be impressed and thoroughly enjoy a meal. It tells us that respecting the produce, taking the time and giving it the love it deserves really shines through in the final product, and it tells us that pulled meats are definitely not a passing fad!

However, the one thing that we talked about the most, and the one aspect which has become the unintentional focal point when we tell our friends and colleagues about the Bloc Party actually isn’t the food. It’s the people. It’s the pitmasters and their crew who created this infectious passion and vibrant atmosphere that really galvanised the whole experience.

That’s the part I love most about creating and going on food tours; it’s the lessons you learn that you don’t expect to. It’s a new perspective and a fresh outlook on something you think you know and, when you fully intend to go left, you’re all of a sudden at the end of the path that swung right, and there is something really reinvigorating about that.

This higher level experience is the part which has become most relevant to me when assessing what learnings we can take from this experience. Of course, there are many culinary learnings we took from the Bloc Party, and there is no doubt in my mind that if you have this kind of quality BBQ and slow cooked meat dishes on your menu, you will create a cult following! However, customers already expect that you will serve them amazing food, so if you can create this vibe within your café or restaurant and if you can impart your passion which engages your customers and draws them to you, then you really have something special, and that’s the part which can’t be replicated by competitors.

The way in which you create this environment can be varied and very individual. You can hold appreciation nights with regular customers, frequently change aspects of your menu (say, the type of pulled meat or the accompanying sauce or chutney) and promote this so customers are excited to see what comes next and continue coming in. It’s always great to include some education and share with your customers what you’ve done and how you’ve done it; their appreciation and interest grows, and it develops a bond and loyalty. It also positions you and your team as experts in that area and the “go to” place for that particular product.

Passion is infectious, and people love to be infected with that kind of retail drug! It’s a feel good moment, it’s a high, and at the end of it they get to eat some amazing food. Everyone wins!

It brings home the famous, but ever relevant, quote by the late Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

About the author
Mel Sharpe is the Operations Manager of the Australasian Sandwich Association and is also Director of Passageway. Passageway specialises in creating bespoke food industry insight tours throughout Australia and the world.

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