The ribs that Donna Rice’s team prepares for Desperado’s BBQ & Rib Co. weigh 33 pounds per case, which is no light load to carry. A case of brisket is about 80 pounds and the team might cook three to five of those a night.
The signs they hang — inviting people to “Lick My Ribs,” bragging “been there, won that” and listing the menu — weigh 400 to 500 pounds.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Rice said about taking part in events such as Erie’s Wild Rib Cook Off & Music Festival.
Erie entertainment:30th Erie Wild Rib Cook Off and Music Festival planned for September
But there’s also the opportunity to see familiar faces, meet new ones and, of course, compete and potentially win.
“We love traveling the country and meeting people,” said Rice, of Hinckley, Ohio, near Cleveland. “It’s sort of like a family reunion every weekend.”
Rice’s rib team will be one of nine participating in this year’s Wild Rib Cook Off & Music Festival, which kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 15, and runs through Sept. 18 in Perry Square. Back after missing 2020, and later on the calendar due to COVID-19, the event, known informally as Erie Rib Fest, also will feature a variety of musical performances as well as vendors and games.
But really, it’s about what’s cooking at those nine stands, two of them local this year, three of them owned or managed by women.
“It’s all about the barbecue,” said event organizer Kathi Danielson, owner of Performance & Event Management. “People love barbecue.”
For those who make it at home, the Rib Fest is a chance to taste what the national touring teams are doing with it, Danielson said.
Rice said Desperado’s has a very hot sauce that’s popular in Pittsburgh, where she visited in early September for the Heinz Field Kickoff and Rib Festival. She’s waiting to see if that sauce will be as popular in Erie, where fest visitors can vote for their favorite ribbers in the People’s Choice category.
Rice has been here before and, in addition to competing, was looking forward to seeing an aunt and cousins who live here. She’s been in the barbecue business since 1988, starting with her husband and then continuing the work after his death.
As one of the few women doing it and acknowledging that it can be difficult, she said it’s important to have a good team to help.
Danielson, who also owns her own business, said she was excited to have multiple female-owned and/or female-managed rib teams participating in the 30th year of the event. She said they also include Armadillo’s BBQ and Underdog BBQ. Underdog is one of the local teams, along with Outlaw Barbecue Revolution.
Rib Fest changes
Besides more women, Danielson said this cook-off and festival have a few other differences.
First is the obvious change in the start date from the usual Wednesday after Memorial Day. Danielson said that was due to COVID-19. Also because of the pandemic, there won’t be a big-top tent or inflatables for children and tables will be spread around Perry Square to help maintain social distancing.
Because of construction, the rib teams will be split into two locations, she said. Ribber Row South will be on South Park Row near City Hall. Ribber Row North will be on North Park Row near Richford Arms.
Among some new vendors, Danielson said, are MLH Distillery of Grove City, selling spirits including vodka, liqueur, rum, whiskey and gin, and Iron Maiden Welding Art by Andie featuring locally made original fabricated art pieces.
Also new, the festival will feature a commemorative T-shirt that can be pre-ordered for $25 or purchased on site.
The Sept. 16 musical lineup will feature two groups performing all original tunes, Danielson said. Me & the Boy is set to take the stage from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., followed by Six Year Stretch from 7 to 10 p.m.
Danielson said the rest of the festival will feature a variety of music. There also will be what she called carnival games for children.
Attending the Rib Fest is free, but there is a fee for food and beverages. While prices hadn’t been set yet when she talked with Showcase, Danielson said half a rack of ribs with sides would probably go for somewhere around $18.
She said the teams will also sell pulled pork, chicken, brisket, sausage and shrimp. Other vendors will serve ice cream, kettle corn, deep-fried Oreos and more.
“In addition to the barbecue, we have your traditional festival foods,” she said.
Danielson said about 50,000 people usually attend Erie’s Wild Rib Cook Off & Music Festival. It’s not clear what effect COVID-19 could have on attendance, but she said the numbers might be even higher this year because the date change means students are already back at Erie-area colleges. Plus, people are hungry for that barbecue they missed last year.
Contact Dana Massing at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ETNmassing.
If you go
What: Erie’s Wild Rib Cook Off & Music Festival
When: Sept. 15 and 16, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sept. 17 and 18, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Where: Perry Square in downtown Erie
Rib teams: Outlaw Barbecue Revolution, Pigfoot BBQ Co., Carolina Rib King, Desperado’s BBQ & Rib Co., Fine Smoke BBQ, Armadillo’s BBQ, Underdog BBQ, Jim’s Smokin’ Que and Cowboy’s BBQ & Rib Co.
Wednesday, Sept. 15
• 4:30 p.m.: Skylar Otto-Smith
• 7 p.m.: Acoustic Ear Candy
Thursday, Sept. 16
• 4:30 p.m.: Me & The Boy
• 7 p.m.: Six Year Stretch
Friday, Sept. 17
• 4:30 p.m.: Thirst N Howl
• 8 p.m.: Hooligans Holiday
Saturday, Sept. 18
• 11 a.m.: Rock School Studios Youth Band
• 2 p.m.: Bass Bandage with Doc Proto
• 3 p.m.: Life Through Music
• 4 p.m.: Urban Ranch
• 8 p.m.: Remixx
Cost: Free admission; food and beverages available for purchase