ELKHORN—If you grill it, they will come.
Organizers of Elkhorn’s inaugural Ribfest learned that lesson in 2016 when they ran out of food the first day. An unexpected crowd of nearly 30,000 swarmed the Walworth County Fairgrounds that year, leaving cooks and beverage vendors scrambling for supplies.
“Barbecue vendors were scattering to Costcos and Sam’s Clubs from Illinois to Madison getting as many pork butts and ribs as they could find,” recalled fairgrounds General Manager Larry Gaffey. “Even the kettle corn guy ran out of corn by 2 p.m.”
In 2017, the crowd nearly doubled, but organizers and vendors were better prepared. Monitoring interest on Facebook, they had been tipped off ahead of time that word of their little food festival had gotten out to a hungry public.
This year, as Ribfest celebrates its third year July 12-15, Gaffey hopes for a four-day crowd approaching six figures.
“A big part of that is that it’s (Ribfest) free to attend, and we offer free parking,” he said. “There’s a big barbecue event in Naperville, Illinois, but it costs money to get in, and they have big headline acts you have to pay to see. It might cost $10 to get in and another $50 to see the headliner. Here, you park, you don’t pay when you go in, and you enjoy the music for free.”
The two-hour drive to Naperville aside, there’s a host of reasons why opting for Elkhorn might be a better option. For instance, along with the return of its 30-vendor artisan gallery and carnival midway, Ribfest will introduce pony and helicopter rides.
The festival also will host its first-ever Rib Run, a free-to-enter, multi-class motorcycle show in which entrants can ride and park in the middle of the festival grounds. Attendees will judge the event from 3 to 6 p.m. today, with trophies and cash prizes being handed out to winners.
As with its food, Ribfest promises music options sure to suit all tastes. Featured acts include Bella Cain (country), Cherry Pie (rock) and the Eddie Butts Band (jazz, pop and R&B), but you should also expect to hear some blues, country/rock and acoustic offerings while you suck the sauce from your fingers.
For those averse to ribs, wings and pulled pork, there will be hot dogs, roasted corn, funnel cakes and more.
Of course, there also will be smoked meats. Lots and lots of smoked meats.
“I taste-test every vendor,” Gaffey joked. “Not because I’m worried about whether it’s good or not. It’s just part of the package, if there are any perks at all.”
Each year, Ribfest brings in 12 of the country’s best ribbers and some of the area’s most aspiring grillers. The nonsanctioned, or “outlaw,” event is open to pros and novices alike who compete in separate categories, but all are blind-judged by certified members of the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
“I’ve been in the room while they’re going through it, and it’s pretty intense,” Gaffey said of the judging. “They’re not nice about it. If it’s bad, it’s bad ... and they say why. So it’s not like saving lives or anything, but it takes a lot of courage to stand up and see how you compete.”
In addition, attendees get their licks in to determine who wins the People’s Choice Award, and Gaffey names the winner of the “Wild Bunch” Award—an honor that goes to the team he feels “has the best time” at the event.
A barbecuer himself, Gaffey said he’s never had the desire to offer up his rib recipe for competition. But many other locals have, he said—often with positive results.
“Some of these community teams could compete on the national level, and the judges have scored many of these teams at that level,” he said. “They’re not playing. They come to win, they learn, they experiment, and they practice their craft. But they also have a heck of a lot of fun.”