Clayton fired up over return of BBQ competition
CLAYTON, CA (June 15, 2022) — It all started in the dusty back parking lot of the Clayton Club Saloon.
Scores of rib enthusiasts would set up swim team tents and Weber kettles – or sometimes a strange-looking UFO or two – and enjoy the scents of barbecue sauce, grilled meat and the spicy Bloody Marys the club poured, the best ones this side of the Bay.
When the smoke cleared, lucky local officials and members of the Clayton Business & Community Association (CBCA) would taste the ribs and declare winners of the annual Clayton Rib Cook-off.
Though not as popular as other Clayton events like the Art & Wine Festival or Oktoberfest, the Rib Cook-off, first grilled in 2010, became a summer staple for rib lovers and backyard barbecue enthusiasts from throughout the East Bay and beyond. The coveted “People’s Choice” award was fodder for bragging rights throughout the year.
“I remember setting up in the parking lot of the Clayton Club, putting my ribs on the cooker and relaxing for a few hours with some Bloody Marys from the bar while I caught up with friends who came to cook or just watch and hang out,” says Clayton’s Steve Biggs, now the proud chef of the competition team Bull Market BBQ.
“I was really surprised to see teams jumping up and down and spending so much time tending to their ribs. Our results were OK, but never good enough for a trophy, so I dove in a little deeper to the sport,” Biggs adds. “Since then, we have traveled all over the country and been invited to compete in some premier BBQ events like the American Royal in Kansas City. However, I still think cooking ribs in the parking lot of the Clayton Club are some of my best BBQ memories.”
Going the extra mile
The delightful small-town event reflected the community spirit of Clayton – until one man decided it needed to go a few steps further.
CBCA member Rory Richmond, like Biggs, delved into the world of competitive barbecue and realized there was an entire culture devoted to the sport. If he could convince the CBCA that it would bring prestige and revenue to the town, he would make it happen.
Richmond succeeded, traveling throughout California and the Western states to learn about barbecue competitions, organizing judging classes and soliciting teams to come to the event, even getting sanctioned by the prestigious worldwide Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS).
This year, after missing two years due to the pandemic, the CBCA Barbecue Cook-off will again envelop Clayton with its sights and sounds. The tiny little parking lot rib cook-off is now one of the most popular competitive barbecue events in California.
Unfortunately, Richmond won’t be there to see it happen, as he died in 2019. But there’s no doubt he would be proud of what he brought to his beloved community.
The CBCA BBQ Cook-off will be held Saturday and Sunday, July 9-10, in downtown Clayton. Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and until 5 p.m. Sunday.
This year’s festival will feature a four-meat competition (chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and brisket), with more than 40 BBQ Masters and backyard chefs facing off to take home more than $10,000 in prize money.
This year’s expanded two-day festival will include more vendors, food booths, a wider beer selection and live music.
“How this event gained life is a tribute to Rory’s tenacity,” says longtime CBCA member Bob Steiner. “I was president when Rory first proposed the idea to the board, and I did not believe the use of volunteers would be worth the reward, as opposed to our other events.
“His first year, we barely broke even. I agreed to vote him one more year,” Steiner recalls. “The project did much better and has improved each subsequent year. What it is today is the result of Rory pulling the thing on his back. To see it morph from the rear of the Clayton Club to Main Street is amazing.”
A time to honor Richmond
It’s not just locals who are excited about the return of the barbecue competition.
“The Clayton CBCA BBQ Cook-off is an important contest on the California barbecue circuit, often drawing professional barbecue teams not only from all over California, but adjoining states – all competing for KCBS points,” says Ian Schmidt, who is a Northern California KCBS representative along with his wife Julie Poe.
He notes that Richmond “worked tirelessly” to expand the popular cook-off into a four-meat, professional KCBS BBQ Master Series, plus expanding the backyard contest to include chicken.
“Rory made a permanent, positive impact on Northern California barbecue by not only spearheading this event but organizing multiple certified BBQ judge training classes,” Schmidt says. “Many lasting friendships were made at Rory’s events, and the BBQ community is looking forward to not only coming together in Clayton this year but also remembering and honoring Rory and his enthusiasm and passion for not only Clayton, but for barbecue.”
For more information, visit claytoncbca.org.
Peggy Spear is a journalist and frequent contributor to the Pioneer.