The competition barbecue was already cooked by the time we arrived at Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown in Sanford, FL. The teams had parked their RVs and set up their smokers in the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens festival grounds early Friday morning. The meat was inspected at noon, and was done between 10am and 2pm the next day. The teams competed in five categories: mystery meat (boneless, skinless turkey breast this year), chicken, brisket, ribs, and pork. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t get to try this meat, but that is fairly typical at barbecue competitions due to health regulations.
The fun starts after the competition food is cooked, when the bands, the Pitmasters, and the public come out to eat, drink, and play. Three different award-winning barbecue vendors served Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown: Sonny’s BBQ (duh), Firehouse BBQ, and Operation BBQ Relief. Sonny’s really requires no introduction. It was founded in Gainesville, FL in 1968 and has since expanded into a national barbecue chain known for its family- and wallet-friendly cuisine, especially their award-winning dry-rubbed ribs.
Firehouse BBQ is a food truck started by two firefighters from Deland, FL. Thrice state champions, Firehouse serves up some of the best barbecue in the state. They were serving chicken sandwiches, pulled pork sandwiches with Bourbon baked beans, Texas brisket sandwich with Bourbon baked beans, turkey legs, and BBQ sundaes at this year’s Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown. A BBQ sundae is a layered combination of coleslaw, BBQ beans, and pulled pork in a large cup or Mason jar. BBQ sundaes and BBQ sandwiches were very popular at the competition, as these are much easier to eat on the go compared to ribs and chicken wings.
Operation BBQ Relief has won awards for their charitable work in addition to their barbecue. When disaster strikes, they are on the scene making warm meals for those affected. But before this, Stan Hays and Will Cleaver, founders of Operation BBQ relief, were winning awards for their BBQ at competitions around the country. The lines were long for a taste of this National Championship BBQ at Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown. BBQ parfaits, a.k.a. BBQ sundaes or BBQ cocktails, were a big seller here.
Cheerwine, the official soft drink of the National Barbecue Association since 2015, was there serving their sweet cherry soda to the masses. Cheerwine was founded in North Carolina in 1917, and it was only a matter of time before it became inextricably linked with Carolina BBQ. You could also get lemonade or iced tea at Firehouse BBQ, and draft beer or mixed drinks at the drinks tent. Blue Chair Bay rum was well-represented as one of the sponsors of the event.
When we arrived around 3pm, Hayfire was playing modern country classics while everyone stood in line for their food (there was a 30-45 minute wait at this time of day). Hayfire is an Orlando-based band that the Leesburg & Daytona Bikefest both named “the hottest country band in Florida.” Known for their great vocals and upbeat set list, Hayfire is popular on the Florida BBQ festival circuit.
By the time we got our food, Rockit Fly was setting up for a kick ass rock set. For rock fans, Rockit Fly was just a brief rockin’ interlude, setting up for an evening full of country music. I happily munched on my beef brisket and pulled pork while they performed their sound checks. Rockit Fly is best described as an 80’s rock cover band. Their set included songs from Def Leppard, Guns & Roses, and Van Halen. Their lead singer had a great range, and their guitarist could play like Van Halen. They totally rocked.
As the sun was setting, we strolled through the competition area to check out the competitor’s tents. With the competition part of the day over, the competitors were chilling out by their RV’s, drinking beer and listening to the music pouring out from the stage area.
Around 6pm the awards ceremony began. Forty-one teams from all over the country competed for $68,000 in prizes. Diva Q, of Travel Channel fame (see BBQ crawl), announced the winners in five categories: mystery meat, chicken, brisket, ribs, and pork. Wolf’s Revenge BBQ, of Richmond, VA, won first place in the brisket category, 2nd place for ribs, and 2nd place overall. The Pit Crew BBQ Team, from Peachtree City, GA, won in the mystery meat category for their boneless, skinless, turkey breast, a notoriously difficult meat to keep moist. Cajun Blaze of Louisiana won the grand prize. Seven Florida teams participated, and a few came home with awards, including Accutech, Hot Wachula’s, and Sweet Smoke Q.
From start to finish, Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown was a marathon of activities. Starting at noon, there were cooking demos, eating contests, and an opportunity to meet the masters. All the while, the music was playing and the vendors were cooking. After the awards ceremony, from 6 to 7pm, the country music resumed, with performances from Jill’s Cashbox and Frankie Ballard. People came and went throughout the day, and no matter what time you came, there was something to do. Even though Sonny’s Smokin’ Showdown is only in its second year, it’s an extremely well-attended event. With only a $5 admission fee, free parking, and BBQ dinners in the range of $6-9, the event easily fell into most local budgets. That’s the great thing about barbecue- it’s cheap enough for most people to afford yet rich enough to feel like a luxury.
If you would like to attend a BBQ competition in central Florida, there some great ones coming up in the months of January and February.
Pigz in Z’Hills, Zephyrhills, FL: January 20-21, 2017. Pigz in Z’hills is both a barbecue competition and a blues concert in Zephyrhills, FL. About 50 teams are expected to compete. Spectators can sample BBQ, listen to live blues music, and tour the Zephyrhills Museum of Military History at this signature event. Admission is free, but parking is $10. For details, go to: http://www.zephyrhillschamber.org/Pigz_In_Z’Hills_BBQ_&_Blues.php
Lakeland PigFest, Lakeland, FL: January 27-28, 2017. The Lakeland PigFest is one of the largest barbecue competitions in the Southeast. This year, over 150 teams will compete in four categories: ribs, chicken, pork, and brisket. Admission is free, and barbecue samples are available for purchase. Several local bands will be performing at the event. For details, go to: http://lakelandpigfest.org/
Smoke on the Water, Winter Haven, FL: February 3-4, 2017. More than 80 BBQ teams will be competing in the 13th Annual Smoke on the Water on Saturday, February 4th in Winter Haven, FL. They will be judged in 5 categories: chicken, ribs, pork, brisket, and sauce. Entertainment includes live music and a water skiing show on Lake Cannon. Admission is only $1, and 100% of the proceeds go to the Boys and Girls clubs of Winter Haven, Haines City, and Lake Wales. On the Friday night before the competition, there will be a beach party from 8pm to 11pm, with live music, a cash bar, and fireworks. A $10 donation gets you in to the party. For details, go to: http://ccbgc.com/smoke/
The Old Florida Outdoor Festival, Apopka, FL: February 10-11, 2017. This is where the Florida BBQ State Championship is being held this year. Thus far, 65 teams are registered to compete, the majority of which are from the state of Florida. In addition to BBQ, there will be concerts (Country/Americana), fireworks, a car show, and kids games & rides. Admission is free, but parking is $10 cash. For details, go to: http://www.oldfloridaoutdoorfestival.com/
Ribs on the Ridge, Haines City, FL: February 24-25, 2017. BBQ teams from all over the U.S.A. will be competing at Haines City’s Ribs on the Ridge in Lake Eva Park. There will be live entertainment and a Cornhole tournament. Admission is free. For details, go to: http://hainescity.com/ribsontheridge2017/