Investigative cover feature for GlobeTO in the Globe and Mail on July 31, 2015.
The St. Thomas Ribfest looks, smells and sounds like any other ribfest. Sunscreened families line up, sometimes for close to an hour, to pay $23 for a full rack of pork ribs or $13 for a half. There are lemonade stands, funnel cakes, face painters, ice cream vendors, children playing and five boisterous, smoking rib vendors. Four middle-aged men jam on Led Zeppelin covers at the bandshell in Pinafore Park, a verdant 90-acre space on the southern edge of town and a 30-minute drive south of London, Ont.
There is one important distinction about this ribfest: It is run by a 28-year-old entrepreneur and rib-world interloper named Justin Brown. “We’re blacklisted,” he explains. Rotary International, whose local chapters run more ribfests than any other organization in Ontario, has cost Mr. Brown award-winning ribbers, national sponsors and local charities, all of whom fear eviction from lucrative Rotary events if they work with him. “I’m just trying to put on an event in a city that doesn’t have one,” Mr. Brown says. “I like doing it, and I’m not gonna stop doing it. Take my sponsors, fine. I’ll find other people that are interested.”
In a smoky subculture with the scent of the Deep South and a firm footing in Ontario, several Rotarians view Mr. Brown’s fledgling for-profit rib series as an affront to their multimillion-dollar charitable system. “It’s pretty public that we’re upset about it,” says Jeremy Racicot, co-chair of Canada’s Largest Ribfest, a Rotary event in Burlington that many feel is uncomfortably close to Mr. Brown’s upstart Hamilton Ribfest. “It was tough for us to hear that there was a for-profit series that was sparking up, and it was in direct competition with our brand.”
It wasn’t just Hamilton. Mr. Brown has started ribfests in Welland (near St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest, 20 kilometres and three weeks apart), Georgetown (19 km from Rotary Rib n’ Roll, in Brampton) and Newmarket (26 km from Richmond Hill Ribfest, a municipally run event), all under his sleek Northern Heat Rib Series brand. This year, the St. Thomas Ribfest preceded the for-profit London Ribfest, run by Doug Hillier, by just a single week. But Mr. Hillier can handle it, and says he’s “disgusted” by how Rotary clubs have treated Mr. Brown. “Even though I do not like the St. Thomas Ribfest coming so close to me, I believe they have the right to do that,” he says. “Small business is how this country is run.”
Several ribbers still side with the Rotary. One told me Northern Heat would “kill the industry”; others believe Mr. Brown’s business strategy is parasitical, draining nearby markets for his own private gain and working with charities as a guise. “Despite what [Mr. Brown] says, the fact is, he’s worded it very carefully,” says John Kasias, who runs Railroad Ribs. “If you know them, you know that’s lip service.”
In early 2015, Rotary clubs circulated a letter among ribbers admonishing Mr. Brown, suggesting the Rotary would protect its own interests. “They didn’t outright say, ‘We don’t want you doing this’ or ‘You can’t do this,’ ” says Tom Diavolitsis, who has run Boss Hogs BBQ for 10 years. Nonetheless, Mr. Diavolitsis quit Northern Heat’s Hamilton show. “It scared me,” he says. “They made a point of kicking Victor out.… I don’t want to fall into that same fate.”
Victor Anastasiadis, the 21-year-old who inherited the lauded Kentucky Smokehouse chain from his father, chose to remain in Mr. Brown’s rib series; Mr. Brown is good friends with Mr. Anastasiadis’s older brother. After refusing to abandon Northern Heat, Kentucky Smokehouse was axed from Canada’s Largest Ribfest. Soon after, Mississauga followed suit.
Mr. Anastasiadis declined to comment for this story, but Rotary members are unapologetic. “We do not just do this on a whim. We spent a lot of time and a lot of consultation,” says Robert Peeling, the Burlington event’s co-founder. “We don’t help people setting out for private profit.”
Mr. Brown avoids phrasing it this way, but Northern Heat has exposed cracks in Ontario’s ribfest industry. Everyone The Globe and Mail spoke with agrees ribfests are good for local economies, charities and private business people. But Rotarians believe that donating 100 per cent of their profit is the right thing to do, while Mr. Brown, who has yet to profit from any of his ribfests, is content committing to a 10- or 15-per-cent donation in the future and use the rest to grow his business. Neither side says it wants to fight: Rotarians want Mr. Brown to simply move his events farther away, while Mr. Brown has already shifted around controversial dates to pre-empt confrontation.
But the schism exists, and ribbers looking to expand their businesses are left in limbo. “There’s nothing for them to say Boss Hogs can go to Burlington every year – I have to perform, I have to run a clean operation, I have to be professional,” Mr. Diavolitsis says. “But normally that’s always been enough. I’ve never had an issue where I’ve had to think twice about where I’m going.”
He sighs and leans back. “But I guess that’s just growing pains now.”
Read the full story on the Globe’s website.