Meet the Colorado BBQ Challenge |

Meet the Colorado BBQ Challenge

Photo: Stephanie Cheval LLC

A lot of people move to the mountains with dreams of skiing the next 30 or so seasons, perhaps meeting their dream ski bunny or starting a business, but very few ever see that dream to completion. Doug Pierce, however, of Bonnie Q BBQ and the locally renowned Arapahoe Cafe and Pub Down Under in Dillon, has made that dream come true.

He started at the bottom as a broiler cook at Keystone after moving to town to ski in 1977 and worked his way to the top of the local food and beverage industry, retiring about 10 years ago as director of Keystone food and beverage to open the Arapahoe Cafe, Pub Down Under and Roadhouse Room catering and events. Competing in Frisco’s annual Colorado BBQ Challenge for the past 20 years is just a part of his local legacy.

“I bought rotisserie smokers for a couple of our locations at Keystone, and that’s how I became familiar with them,” said Pierce, who serves his award-winning Bonnie Q BBQ (named after his youngest daughter) out of the circa-1945 Arapahoe Café, a building which was saved from Old Dillon when the reservoir was flooded in 1963.

Two weeks before Pierce left Keystone, the Arapahoe Café came up for lease, and he jumped at the opportunity to start the business he’d been talking about for years.

Frisco is fairly legendary in the circuit. People love going there

“And, as they say, the rest is history,” he said.

The challenge

The BBQ Challenge in Frisco started in 1994 and was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society two years later. The Rotary Club of Summit County ran the BBQ Challenge until 2004, when the town of Frisco took it over. It now draws upward of 70 competitors and 30,000 fans to kick off the summer season each year.

Teams compete in categories including beef brisket, pork shoulder and ribs, chicken, sauce, salsa, sides, anything goes and dessert. Frisco’s Golden Toad BBQ Team, for example, serves barbecue “shrimp bombs” that have been the highest selling item at the Challenge for five years running, said Suzanne Lifgren, town of Frisco marketing director.

To be considered for the hotly contested Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion titles that will enable them to travel to Kansas City to compete in the American Royal BBQ championship, teams must prepare dishes in the four primary categories of chicken, pork ribs, pork butt (or shoulder or picnic ham) and beef brisket, which, according to Pierce, is the most difficult and competitive category.

In Colorado, 12 sanctioned events can send champions to American Royal BBQ by invitation only. The tournament is now in its 25th year.

“The American Royal BBQ is our crown jewel,” said Carolyn Wells, Kansas City Barbecue Society executive director and co-founder. “It’s the largest barbecue contest in the world; it will have 550 teams.”

Fierce competition

Teams chase points all year, and the most points in 10 contests determine Team of the Year, rewarded with cash, bragging rights, a trophy and a banner to hang in their booth. According to Wells, total combined purses for the competitions reach $3.5 million to $4 million annually.

Winners are also entered into a lottery to compete at the international Jack Daniels barbecue invitational in Lynchburg, Tenn., in late October.

“(Kansas City Barbecue Society) is in its 28th year,” Wells said. “We started out with 30 members way back when and now have 17,000 members worldwide. The only rule was to not to take yourself too seriously, and to do so was grounds for eviction.”

The group now has 6,000 teams on its active registered cooking list, has trained 24,000 judges and sanctions 450 contests per year, growing between 12 percent and 15 percent per year.

“The business we’re in is Americana. It’s all about food, family, fun and friends. It’s the ultimate comfort food,” Wells said. “It’s a wonderful culture, and this is the only sport I’ve ever seen when people are competing against each other all weekend and they’re clapping for each other at the awards ceremony.”

The barbecue is judged on appearance (25 percent), tenderness (25 percent) and taste (50 percent). A score of nine is considered excellent, while two is inedible, and scores are carried out to one-thousandths (i.e. 7.231) — to give an idea of the level of competitiveness.

“Frisco is fairly legendary in the circuit. People love going there,” Wells said.

Lifgren said the BBQ Challenge has a nearly $2.5 million impact on Summit County. The event generates between $40,000 and $60,000 for local nonprofits and has a 75 percent diversion of event-waste from the landfill (and a 95 percent diversion of waste from attendees).

“We do 3,500 gallons of beer, as well,” Lifgren said. “We hope nobody throws their beer out.”

Secret is slow cooking

“The only secret to good barbecue,” Pierce said, “is to start slow and never go faster.”

And apparently that theory has worked, as Bonnie Q BBQ has taken numerous top placements in Pierce’s 20-year barbecue career. He took a first in side dish last year in Frisco, first in sauce at the Krystal 93 BBQ at the Summit “World’s Highest BBQ Contest” and third in people’s choice and miscellaneous. Bonnie Q has also taken firsts at the Beaver Creek Blues, Brews & BBQ several years running, as well as people’s choice awards for its green chili and Best of Summit County awards in almost every food and restaurant category.

This year, Pierce has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. He’s introducing a smoked cheddar mac and cheese in the side dish category, where his crew will smoke and melt the cheese on site. He’s also vying for a top finish in pork ribs.

“You’re practicing all the time,” Pierce said. “It’s a great social event. If you’ve ever been to it, you’re sure to return, and if you’ve never been, you’re missing out.”

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