Every August in Wilmington the heat turns up a few degrees, thanks to the annual Port City RibFest, a three-day national festival which brings together ‘cue lovers from all over the nation. In its third year, the festival will move from Battleship Park to downtown’s North Waterfront Park (near PPD) August 14 through 16. With it comes a slew of contestants, including Florida’s Skin and Bones, Maine’s Sin City, South Carolina’s Big Boned BBQ, Carolina Rib King, Texas Pit Barbecue, and two locals, Poor Piggy’s and Billy Ray’s Restaurant. Billy Ray’s owner Doug Turley will step up from the Kansas City BBQ Society competition level. Each pitmaster will prepare their best in ribs and sauce, in styles ranging from Memphis to Chicago to St. Louis to, of course, Eastern North Carolina.
“We select participants based on their experience, including competitions, the quality and consistency of their BBQ, the capacity of their equipment, and attitude,” festival founder Allen McDavid says. Judges consist of a mix of professionals and food lovers—the latter being a man and a woman chosen from the rib fest’s Facebook page.
“We traditionally have a chef and/or food writer or trained BBQ judges,” McDavid explains. “Rounding out the panel are local celebrities and/or dignitaries along with someone from title sponsor.”
2015 welcomes to the lip-smackin’ table: Chuck Schoninger (Port City Marina developer), William Aman (KCBS judge), Aaron Martin (KCBS judge), Ed Wolverton (president, Wilmington Downtown, Inc.), Jordan Porter (RibFest Facebook Family), Lora Hill (Cricket Wireless), and Heather Christa Hollingsworth (RibFest Facebook family). Judges will base their decisions on flavor, consistency, presentation, execution, tenderness, and the like. They’re also given a crash course on what to look for in the blind entries, in an effort to sideline them toward preferential treatment of their favorite styles of barbecue. In the end, titles will be given for Grand Champion (best combined score in ribs and sauce), Best Ribs, Best Sauce, People’s Choice, and a new category, Homeboy Winner, which will determine the best of the two locals (2014 winners included Grand Champion, Sticky Fingers BBQ—Texas; Best Ribs, Florida Skin and Bones; Best Sauce, Camp 31; and People’s Choice, Poor Piggy’s).
Though entry into the festival is $7 (children, $1), everyone who chooses to attend Friday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. will be allowed a $1 admission fee. Sampling tickets are sold separately, each good for a taste of four ribs only, from whichever contestants one prefers. As well, other vendors set up to sell food, like plates of barbecue, ribs, brisket, sandwiches, sides, and desserts, at their own menu prices.
Though ribs are the main attraction, nine bands and performers will play throughout the three-day event. “There is a lot of good talent here and we want to do our part to showcase them,” McDavid says. He selected players who can appeal to a wide range of musical tastes. Past festival performers have hailed the Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“We strive to bring in bands that we think are on the cusp of breaking out on national scale, but are not yet recognized by most of our attendees,” McDavid continues.
This weekend folks will hear the sounds of locals The MidAtlantic and The Justin Cody Fox Trio, as well as Snake Malone and the Black Cat Bone, Rachel Martin, Junkyard Mama, and frequent festival players Bombadil.
“I have booked Bombadil many times dating back to 2007,” McDavid tells. “The last time I had them at the Twin City RibFest in Winston-Salem in June, I told them, ‘I am disappointed that I can still afford you.’”
A family-friendly event, the Port City RibFest does its part in making sure kids are entertained. Their Kids’ Zone will offer rides (charged separately), as well as games, plus there will be Lucha Libre wrestling, an old-school side show, the Larceny Bourbon’s Shady Ladies Saloon (a full-service imbibing tent), and live pirate performances from The Shadow Players on Saturday. The El Galeon ship—a 1/1 scale reconstruction of a 16th-century Spanish galleon—will be docked downtown Wilmington on the riverfront, and a combined ticket price to tour the ship and enter the rib fest is offered ($5-$11).
“We have added additional themed alcohol bars, including a ‘pirate rum bar,’” McDavid explains. “We have a photo studio run by a professional fashion photographer, along with clothing props and a stylist, to offer attendees the opportunity to get a professional photo shoot for $10.”
In essence, the Port City RibFest offers more than just ribs. It’s sauce and sass and sensational fun.